Friday, 20 August 2010

"The Looking Glass War" by John le Carre

Year of Publication: 1965
Number of Pages: 318 pages
Genre: Spy, thriller

Summary: In the Second World War a department of British military intelligence known only as "The Department" had it's finest hour. However, by the mid 1960s The Department has faded away to the point where it is almost shut down, with most of it's jobs being given to it's bitterist rival, the British Secret Service (nicknamed "The Circus"). However The Department has received spy photographs of a secret missile base, apparently being constructed in Communist controlled East Germany, with evidence of a powerful, experimental missile being stored at the site. Leclerc, head of The Department, is excited about a chance to return to the glory days and the opportunity to show up those at the Circus, such as spymaster George Smiley, that The Department still has value. They decide to bring back retired Polish operative Fred Leiser, retrain him and send him on a dangerous into East Germany to find information about the missile base.

Opinions: David Cornwall, who writes under the pseudonym John le Carre, worked as a secret agent for about six years and became acclaimed for spy novels that were more realistic than the Ian Fleming "James Bond" style tales. This book is very typical of le Carre's style. It's not a shoot-em-up, supercool spies fighting evil villians and romancing glamorous women. Instead there is very little violence with the story being primarily character driven, with most of the drama in the book being due to their emotional and moral conflicts. The characters are complex and morally ambiguous and, as is usual with le Carre novels, the spies are doing the job more for the sake of the spying game itself rather than for any real notions of good and bad. They are also deeply flawed with many important plot points being due mainly to the character's screw-ups than anything. The story is beautifully written and le Carre has a perfect eye for character and detail, and a lot of the minutuae of spycraft described in the book is very interesting. However it is very slow moving. John le Carre claimed that this book was the most realistic depiction fo the intelligence world as he knew it, and believed that this might be one of the reasons for it's relative lack of success.
Incidentally, the fact that the book has been recently republished under the label "A George Smiley Novel" isn't really accurate. Although the character of George Smiley (a recurring character in le Carre's books) does feature, he only appears fairly infrequently and is only a supporting character.

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