The Looking Glass War was John le Carré’s fourth novel and also the fourth to feature his most famous character, British spy George Smiley. John le Carré had scored a major bestseller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This was certainly not the first spy novel to feature an unglamorous hero nor was it the first to introduce a tone of gritty realism combined with cynicism and defeat. Eric Ambler had been writing dark cynical spy novels (like Epitaph for a Spy) for years as had Graham Greene (in books like Stamboul Train). It was however The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that really put despair and moral nihilism at centre stage in the world of spy fiction.
For all its nihilism The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an entertaining and exciting spy novel. For his next novel le Carré decided to up the ante. This book would really show the world of espionage as it was - a dull dreary world of blunders, office politics, petty backstabbing and general incompetence, with very little excitement. Not surprisingly when The Looking Glass War was published in 1965 it failed to match the commercial success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold although it could be argued that in artistic terms it achieved le Carré’s aims.
The Department is a branch of the British intelligence services. Its glory days were the years of the Second World War when it was at the forefront of the secret war, conducting daring aerial reconnaissance missions and dropping agents behind enemy lines. Those glory years are now well and truly in the past. During the war there had been a fierce competitiveness between the Department and a rival British intelligence agency known as the Circus. In theory the Department handles operations against strictly military targets while the Circus handles the political side. In practice the Circus has gradually taken over all of the Department’s functions, and has also poached most of the Department’s more competent employees. In fact the Department now has almost nothing to do and probably only survives at all due to bureaucratic inertia.
The head of the Department, Leclerc, is also a relic of World War II. Unfortunately he still dreams of recapturing the Department’s former glory and now he thinks he’s found a way to do so. One of his few remaining agents (another ageing Second World War veteran) has come across an East German defector who has some photographs to sell. Only three of the photographs show anything at all and what they do show is open to debate. In the right light, and if you hold them at the right angle, there are blurred shapes that could be ballistic missiles. To be honest these shapes could be anything at all, or could even be absolutely nothing, but Leclerc chooses to believe he has discovered that the Soviets are deploying medium-range ballistic missiles not far from Rostock in East Germany. It could be the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again, with Leclerc and the Department taking centre stage.
Leclerc somehow gets authorisation for a clandestine overflight. He dispatches Taylor, yet another ageing relic of the war and a man with no experience as a field agent, to retrieve the photographs. The result is a shambles. Leclerc then sends his young aide Avery, a man with zero operational experience, to make another attempt to retrieve the film. The result is another shambles.
With no hard evidence whatsoever Leclerc manages to persuade the Ministry to authorise him to infiltrate an agent into the Rostock area. The problem is that the Department has no field agents available. In fact they have no field agents at all, and no recent experience or expertise in running such operations. Finally they manage to unearth a possibility, a middle-aged Pole who had worked for them during the war. The man in question has done no intelligence work for twenty years and to be honest no-one is even sure that he’s still alive. Using such a man is a fantastically bad idea but the alternative would be to turn the matter over to the Circus, and Leclerc will not consider that since his main objective is to score a victory over the Circus and restore the reputation (and the budget) of the Department.
The operation will go ahead and the stage is set for what could turn out to be tragedy, comedy or tragi-comedy. The ineptitude of the Department is awe-inspiring. Their agent will be equipped with a World War II-vintage radio set since nobody will trust the Department with a modern set. Apart from Avery all the personnel involved in training the agent and planning the operation are old men who have no idea that techniques and technology may have advanced since the war.
Watching from the sidelines with a good deal of interest is George Smiley from the Circus.
While le Carré was obviously suggesting that the British intelligence services were run by bungling cynical incompetents living on memories of past glories the Department can also be seen as a metaphor for Britain in the postwar world - run by bumbling cynical incompetents still clinging to the absurd belief that Britain was a great power. The constant dwelling by Leclerc and his underlings on the proud days of the Second World War adds another layer of irony given that this was the war that ruined Britain as a great power.
The plot almost qualifies as black comedy but le Carré tells his story straight. He was clearly aiming for tragedy rather than comedy.
Leclerc and his minions, especially Haldane, are great characters. They’re ridiculous and pompous and totally out of their depth but somehow you can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for them. The world of the 1940s that was familiar to them has vanished and they are totally lost in the world of the 1960s. George Smiley is just as old but he has adapted, but then Leclerc and his crew have never been given the chance to adapt. Of course any sympathy we feel for them is tempered by the knowledge that their blundering and their dreams of recapturing past glories could entail a high cost in human life, and that they will happily send men to their deaths to further their own careers.
The Looking Glass War is an unconventional and exceptionally bleak spy novel with virtually no action but it manages to be fascinating in its willingness to confront what is after all in reality a sordid and vicious business. Highly recommended.