The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.


In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.



a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.


The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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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