March 5, 2011


by John le Carré
288 pages, Scribner

Review by Kate Kasserman

This turned out to be not in the slightest the book I was in the mood for and the book I hoped to read, and I am grateful for that. The Looking Glass War is kind of one of those stories that makes you want to resign from the species. Perhaps that does not sound like a recommendation, but it is.

It is about pettiness and failure, and the bitter, mean viciousness and stupidity that are too often the only product of yearning and striving for something great. You have been warned.

The setting is the 1970s. The Department is a British intelligence organization that deals with purely military matters; it was a Big Deal during WWII, but since then, not so much. It is a shrunken thing, largely forgotten, with a small, somnolent staff, and its only claim to glory these days is clinging to its wartime rivalry with the political-espionage outfit the Circus, whose fortunes have blossomed, yea verily bloated, with the Cold War. Right from the outset, this rivalry is deeply depressing. The Circus is massively funded, well-connected, on top of its game. The Department is like a heap of wet rags that you realize is actually a degraded person only when you step on it by accident. Oh dear, was the damp urine? You’d like to think that the wealthy, well-fed Circus wouldn’t stoop to fight a “rival” like that. You really would.

The Department wants to prove itself. Is desperate to prove itself. And it seems like it may have gotten its chance. Some profoundly fishy semi-hint from an “informant” who has subsequently vanished into smoke suggests the possibility that the Soviets have installed rocket launchers in Nowheresville, East Germany (Rostock, technically), which, if true, would indicate the first signs of a direct military threat to the West. Military threat? The Department is ON IT, bitchez!!! Heap of wet rags to the rescue.

The Department pays a Scandinavian commercial pilot to accidentally fly over Rostock and take photographs of whazzup there. This film is successfully (if bumblingly) handed over to an unpleasant Department operative who is then smacked into oblivion by a car when walking to his hotel. Accident or murder? (Spoiler alert: we never find out. Everyone is too incompetent.)

John Avery is a 32-year-old aide to the director of the Department (too young to have known the glory years, too naïve to have realized when he began his career that he was hitching himself to a burnt-out star), and, despite that he has no operational experience – evidently, the Department’s only operational agent has just been squished by the errant Citroën – is tasked with retrieving the dead man’s effects in order to get his hands on those interesting photographs.

Some of the reasons he fails are manifestly not his fault. Perhaps all of them are. The local authorities and diplomatic staff are briefly confused and then deeply contemptuous of Avery’s sad attempt at deception, which really is pathetic – but then Avery has no idea what he’s doing. He has no experience and received no meaningful training beyond a basic exhortation to wing it, and the Department has screwed up even the most basic issues (like…the “next of kin” that Avery is pretending to be actually does not have a legal right to the dead man’s possessions, only the body). In that sense, Avery’s utter incompetence helps him out a bit, because they’re onto him in microseconds and let him have the dead guy’s stuff anyway. No film.

It does not occur to Avery even in passing to examine the site where the man was hit to see if the film might have been knocked a distance. Instead, the Department moves right into “we need to train and infiltrate an operative into East Germany to get a firsthand look at things.” And so it begins, going from worse to worser yet. The Department has no flaming idea what it’s doing, it’s been so long out of the game, but it does see an opportunity for prestige and resources. It doesn’t get much of either, but it certainly plumes itself plenty on the chewed-over scraps.

One would say that the operation had no meaningful effect, except that it does result in one (well, two, eventually, and possibly more) people dying who would otherwise probably have had entirely pleasant, productive, and inoffensive lives and gives the Department some bureaucratic small change to feel important with.

Here you go, le Carré seems to be saying. You want to know what intelligence work is really like? Le voila!


  1. The setting is the mid-60s, not the 70s. LeCarre wrote the book in 1964; he isn't known for setting his spy novels in the future.

  2. A typo well-caught! You are quite correct.