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)

Greeneitis.

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.

Wives

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.

Control

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.

Short

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)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.

Plot

Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.

Reversals

The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.

Jewishness

Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler

Credit

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.

Interviews

Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

Related links

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 complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. 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 émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to 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 then 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 at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin 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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