Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “The Looking Glass War” by John le Carre

Published in 1965, John le Carre’s spy novel The Looking Glass War arrived at and helped bring about the beginning of the end of romantic notions about our spies being better than their spies in terms of morality and righteousness.

No one pretends to believe such notions today, more than half a century later. And no one is surprised when, yet again, the sins of one side’s spies are exposed and seem pretty much as bad as the sins of the other side. Choose your poison.

The Looking Glass War is a novel of profound disillusionment, As a spy in the book says before leaving on his assignment, operating during the cold war is much different than it was operating in World War II:

“Nobody wins this one, do they?”


“Discover God”

This is a novel of questions which, at their heart, all come down to: Why do we do it?


There is, throughout the book, a lust for a faith that will not tarnish, as in this scene in which the group leader is outlining the plans of an operation:

Avery knew he would never forget that morning, how they had sat at the farmhouse table like sprawling boys at the Nissen hut desks, their strained faces fixed upon Leclerc as in the stillness of a church he read the liturgy of their devotion, moving his little hand across the map like a priest with the taper.

But faith is never found, as Avery, the youngish member of the team, finds again and again, as in this scene which may have suggested the novel’s its title:

There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propelled him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. Sometimes he was like a man in flight, but running toward the enemy, desperate to feel upon his vanishing body the blows that would prove his being, desperate to imprint upon his sad conformity the mark of real purpose, desperate perhaps, as Leclerc had hinted, to abdicate his conscience in order to discover God.


“Inconsolable sadness”

Few popular novelists have ever captured despair and its eruptions as fiercely as le Carre has throughout his career. Consider this scene from a shooting range:

Before he could finish, the range was vibrating with the sound of Leiser’s shooting — he shot fast, standing very still, his left hand holding the spare magazine precisely at his side like a grenade. He shot angrily, a mute man finding expression.

Everything, even an inanimate object, such as the Victorian home where the training of a spy takes place, expresses this despair.

The whole house gently asserted an air of old age; it had a quality, like incense, of courteous but inconsolable sadness.


“The first bullet”

The stupidity of it all is, perhaps, summed up best by an ambitious bureaucrat who is in a group of men who know that one of their agents in the field is about to be caught — and not just caught but disowned by those who sent him.

Some of the men mourn for the agent. Some go about their duties mechanically. But this bureaucrat turns to one of the men and says:

“There’s something else I want to discuss with you, Adrian…the question of Registry. The system of library files is really out of date. Bruce was on to me about it just before I left…”

And on and on for several more brutally heartless sentences, even as the East German police, known as Vopos, are closing in on the doomed agent:

Softly, like animals, the Vopos dismounted from the two trucks, their carbines held loosely in their hands, advancing in a ragged line, plowing the thin snow, turning it to nothing; some to the foot of the building, some standing off, staring at the windows. A few wore helmets, and their square silhouette was redolent of the war. From here and there came a click as the first bullet was spring gently into the breech; the sound rose to a faint hail and died away.

While the bureaucrat blathers, the first bullet is gentle in the breech.

Patrick T. Reardon

Leave a comment