The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)

‘All right,’ Haldane conceded. ‘We have our brief. But things have changed. It’s a different game now. In those days we were top of the tree – rubber boats on a moonless night; a captured enemy plane; wireless and all that. You and I know; we did it together. But it’s changed. It’s a different war; a different kind of fighting.’ (p.62)

Failure and misery

This novel has the unrelenting despair and misery of a Graham Greene book. Everyone is unhappy, incompetent, in failed marriages with wives who despise them, children they don’t understand, in unsuccessful careers, too old, living in the past, working for a superannuated organisation, slack, doomed to failure.

He went back to his room. There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propels him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. (p.103)

The same wish-to-lecture as Greene. And the same subject: despair, emptiness, the horror of life.

The flat was in darkness. Standing before it, he tried to detect in the house, in himself, some trace of the sentiment, or affection, or love, or whatever it was that explained their marriage, but it was not to be found and he supposed it had never been. He sought desperately, wanting to find the motive of youth; but there was none. He was staring into an empty house. (p.151)

And the same easy equation of complex situations with half a dozen standard bromides about love and guilt.

He was terribly tired; the tiredness was like a physical despair, like the moment of guilt before making love. (p.212)

Like most of Greene’s editorialising, this sounds fine but, on inspection, is meaningless, as if the words ‘despair’, ‘guilt’ and ‘love’, ‘faith’ and betrayal’, are shiny counters which can be placed in any order to deliver a Grand Statement about the Human Condition.

‘Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.’ (p.196)


Competence and the thriller

If you can put aside the relentlessly depressed view of human nature, the novel has other themes.

It highlights the importance of ‘competence’ as a key concept in the thriller. From Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne the hero has a super-human ability to swiftly size up situations and seize the advantage. Despite le Carre’s reputation for the downbeat and realistic, George Smiley (p.32) does in fact perform the function of the omni-competent hero in the eight novels in which he is mentioned (part of the reason I don’t like the running gag about his glamorous wife, Lady Ann, having left him, is because it is so obviously a ruse designed to conceal the fact that Smiley is, beneath his thick glasses and badly-tailored clothes, as shrewd and all-seeing as Holmes.)

The Looking Glass War

In this novel le Carré goes out of his way to portray incompetence. It is set in a government ‘Department’, which had a clear brief during the War to gather intelligence but has now fallen on hard times, its staff dwindling, its agents taken over by the ‘Circus’, in whose shadow the resentful handful of remaining ageing bureaucrats dream up schemes to reassert their importance, led by a hesitant, small man named Leclerc. The old-timers with too much time on their hands reminisce about the War, and the plot boils down to an effort by these middle-aged dreamers to recapture the intensity, the sense of purpose and the excitement they felt, during the War.

Part one

In the brief first part we are introduced to Taylor, a boastful man sent by Leclerc to a remote airport in Finland. A commercial flight has been instructed to fly over East German airspace with cameras in the belly, presumably to look for military installations. Taylor is to meet the pilot and take receipt of the roll of film. The point of the entire section is to highlight Taylor’s incompetence:

  • he fluffs elementary security by telling his wife about the mission, and she has told their daughter (!)
  • he is tempted at every turn to impress the airport staff with how jolly important he is
  • instead of finding a quiet corner of the bar and waiting for the pilot to arrive, he hogs the bar and makes himself memorable by insulting the barman
  • when the pilot arrives he is himself flustered by having been intercepted by MIG jets, unhappy with the mission
  • and they exchange the roll of film and money in plain sight

By the time Taylor has realised he’s drunk, the last airport taxis have all gone and he sets off to walk through the heavy snow to the hotel. A car seen earlier loitering, accelerates up behind him and deliberately runs him over, killing him. The strong implication is this murder follows logically from the folly of the mission and the failure of Taylor to observe almost every rule of ‘tradecraft’.

Part two

Leclerc hosts a meeting of the ‘Department’. Le Carré forensically highlights the politics, the psychological combat, of the attendees. (Le Carré literally belittles Leclerc: he has small fists, a small head, struggles to assert himself.)

Leclerc tells them a mechanic who fled from the East brought photos of what appear to be the latest type of Russian missile being installed in secret locations in East Germany. The attendees are sceptical. They point out that their man who forwarded this ‘information’ – Gorton – has his contract up for renewal; maybe he invented it. (On page 167 Haldane, head of Research, finds similar photos which are known to be fake, but doesn’t inform anyone.) They are critical that Taylor, an overt courier, had been used for a clandestine mission (which explains why he was so puffed up and incompetent), but generally accept the conclusion that this could be a new Cuban Missile Crisis. –What comes over in spades is their collective sense of inferiority to the ‘Circus’, their resentment of the Foreign Office, their determination to prove themselves. All desperately downbeat and depressing.

This is one of the eight Smiley novels: he is not the main figure, as in Tinker, Tailor or Smiley’s People, but not quite as peripheral as in Spy. Once the Circus learns what the Department is up to, Control asks Smiley to lend a hand and keep watch. Smiley interviews Avery on pages 55 to 58. It is clear that he is appalled at his ignorance of tradecraft. Smiley gives him detailed instructions on how to ‘drop’ the film to an experienced courier. He reports back to Control and is tasked with keeping a watch on the Department’s activities.

Avery comes across as a young romantic fool. His trip to Helsinki to collect Taylor’s body is a disaster. Le Carré shows unrelentingly how your story must be perfect to the utmost bureaucratic detail or else the Consul, the Embassy, the local police, the coroner, the airline – someone, in the normal course of their duties, will stumble across any anomalies, and then start asking difficult questions. Avery is portrayed – like Taylor before him – as completely out of his depth. He cannot even manage burning Taylor’s letters and affects in his hotel room without staining the sink, leaving tell-tale traces, and making the hotel staff suspicious.


Depression and failure colour the entire book. Le Carré carries it deep into the characters’ private lives. The members of the Department fail to keep basic security by telling their wives what’s happening. Their wives don’t believe them or despise them. We meet:

  • Woodford the technician and his drunk weeping malicious wife, Babs – ‘she was a thin, childless woman’ (p.168)
  • Taylor’s wife, horribly distraught with grief, when told her husband has died ‘for his country’
  • Fred Leiser’s wife, drunk and resentful and suspicious: he’d rather spend the night with a prostitute than return to her
  • Young foolish Avery emerges as probably the lead character in the novel and we learn far too much about the sterile love-hate marriage with Sarah, who bitterly resents his secrecy and his new sense of puffed-up importance, and are mildly nauseated by the way both of them use their young son Anthony as a pawn in the endless arguments – ‘If it weren’t for Anthony I really would leave you’ (p.164)
  • Smiley thinks Control stays in town on Monday nights because he wants to get away from his wife (p.154)
  • and, of course, everyone knows about Smiley’s wife, the glamorous Lady Ann, and her serial infidelities

All relations between the sexes, in this novel, cause pain. Reading the many passages about relationships in this novel are like having toothache.

Part three

Back in Blighty, young Avery discovers there’s been more incompetence: since he had used his own name when visiting Helsinki to reclaim Taylor’s body, the irregularities in Taylor’s identity were noted and pursued by immigration police our end, who called on Avery’s wife in the middle of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, because he’d blabbed to her, she proceeded to tell the police all about Taylor and his secret mission. If they were police, that is…

Meanwhile, we are shown Leclerc adroitly handling the Whitehall system and getting permission and money to ‘send a man in’ to check the rocket rumours. We are shown Department buffer Woodford going to a shabby old club, the Alias Club, on Villier Street near Charing Cross, set up by veterans of the War, and asking about old contacts, trainers he could call up, plus does anyone know the whereabouts of the man they’ve chosen for the mission, the only man they have on the books from the old days who can speak German, a Polish emigré who fought with us during the War, Fred Leiser.

The novel describes the way old hands from the War are tracked down and set to work training Leiser for his top secret mission at a rented house in Oxford. But the whole flavour of the thing is bitter farce: they are all dreamers, deluded; they want the old days to return, the War years to restore a sense of purpose to their empty lives. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is downbeat, but the leanness of the narrative and the slowly-revealed depths of intelligence in the plot are invigorating for the reader. This novel is plain depressing. Everyone is deluded.

The training is described in minute detail. Maybe it is an accurate portrayal of espionage tradecraft circa 1960. Certainly the class consciousness is very 1960s. Leiser and the the trainers are sergeants and NCOs, not proper officer material, dontcha know. While Leclerc and Haldane swell into their officer-class sense of self-importance, Avery notices the trainers and the agent himself have ‘something of the backstairs’ (p.166).

In the East

The final forty or so pages, describing Leiser’s pointless ‘mission’ into East Germany, are vividly imagined and written, heart-stopping, terrifying: he sneaks across the night-time terrain, through the wire, suddenly killing the young border guard he encounters, then blundering through snow, through darkened villages, stealing a motorbike, asking questions and causing suspicion wherever he goes, leaving a trail a mile wide. The defining mistake is transmitting a radio signal back to his controllers for a solid six minutes, when the maximum for security purposes is two-and-a-half. After three the East Germans have detected it, and the remaining minutes allow them time for several receivers to pick him up and work out his location. They close in for the kill.


It’s not as if the ‘Circus’ (the name all the characters use for British Intelligence due to its location on Cambridge Circus in central London) is much better. The Circus is well-informed about all these developments but let the Department’s crazy plan go ahead anyway, deliberately lending them antiquated radio equipment, fixing passports and papers. On pages 216 to 218 a conversation takes place between Control and Smiley in which the former seems to be admitting that they’ve set the Department up to fail; in other words, that they’re happy for this agent to be captured or killed if it leads to the disgrace and closure of the Department and the triumph of the Circus. ‘It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die.’ (p.218)

This exchange clinches one’s view of Control. He is nasty, amoral and manipulative (as he seems to have been in conceiving the plan which led to Liz and Leamas’s death in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But, worse, he comes over as doddery. He is portrayed as a querulous old man who detests the modern world and judges people as much by snobbery as on their merits.

  • I do detest the telephone (p.216)
  • Leclerc’s so vulgar…a silly, vulgar man (p.217)
  • God, how I loathe civil servants. (p.217)

Partly this looks forward to Control’s death just before the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and everyone’s comments in that book that he’d lost it, become obsessed, should have been pensioned off etc. But on every page of this novel I thought, if this is a remotely accurate account of Britain’s intelligence services in the early 1960s no wonder the Americans were so supremely reluctant to share anything with such a shower.


The narrator not only belittles the silly ‘Department’, its foolish plan and its ham-fisted incompetence, he literally belittles the characters. They’re always short, under-sized.

  • Leclerc Smaller than the rest, older. (p.29) Leiser laughed in a reserved way. It was if he could have wished Leclerc a taller man. (p.182) His small hands folded tidily on his knee. (p.202)
  • Leiser He was a short man, very straight (p.106) He was very much the small man just then. (p.184) As Leiser put on each unfamiliar thing… he seemed to shrink before their eyes. (p.187) … his small face was turned to her… (p.237)
  • Smiley Little sad bloke.’ (p.112)

Everything about the book is little and sad, including, by extension, England itself, its shabby pubs and seedy clubs, its streets full of prostitutes, its awful food and grim weather. The descriptions are beautifully precise. Le Carré’s prose is crisp and clear. But this is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

He handed in his suitcase to the depository at Paddington Station and wandered out into Praed Street because he had nowhere to go. He walked about for half an hour, looking at the shop windows and reading the tarts’ advertisements on the glazed notice boards. It was Saturday afternoon: a handful of old men in trilby hats and raincoats hovered between the pornography shops and the pimps on the corner. There was very little traffic: an atmosphere of hopeless recreation filled the street. (p.149)

The movie

Made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with plausibility, precision and thrilling intelligence.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) Depressing tale of a ramshackle wing of British intelligence left over from the War, whose members try to recapture the old glory when they receive a (dodgy) tip about missiles stationed in East Germany, and wangle the funding to give incompetent training, useless equipment and send to his pointless death, a hapless Polish émigré. A detailed and persuasive account of a dispiriting shambles.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist German political movement.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European emigre in Hampstead leads, eventually, the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to allow herself to be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things start to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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