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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2003
I read "Looking Glass War" several years ago and was jolted at how realistic the people and the departments seemed. The tragedy of the story stayed with me for a long time.
Human ambition, the senselessness of bureaucracy and the infighting among goverment departments --- these are some aspects explored here in a 'spy-story' setting. The interactions seemed very real; the bizarreness of the events very much like real life.
Of course this is more of a serious novel than a thriller, as expected of John le Carre. The mood is gray and cluody, and the ending is distressing. The story follows a young employee of an almost-defunct intelligence department. He flies to Scandinavia and finds the local police more savvy than himself. The characters deceive others and themselves in daily-life ways. They prepare to send a poorly-trained man of forty into East Germany as a spy. At the final betrayal, our protagonist cries in anger and shame.
Those reading this book for getting kicks out of following the heroic adventures of a glamorous spy, sent to do the right thing by the right side, will be disappointed. There's no clear distinction between good and bad sides. The enemy people (east germans) are all too human. As in life, much is ambivalent.
This is not an action-packed thriller to make a feel-good hollywood movie from. Rather, it's an excellent addition to human literature, a testament to the tragedies of individuals caught between government institutions of the twentieth century.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 1999
This book deals with conflicts without and within: how does British intelligence deal with the communist threat, and how do the different departments in the British government vie for supremecy. I thought it a good study on how oftentimes the outside threat is forgotten. In this book, governments are ruthless, and men are driven by ambition and then are shocked by where that ambition leads them. Characters are very human, each working for different reasons, and in the end very believable. Le Carre is the best at examining the psychology of control and lying: what are the consequences of a life of deceit? No, it is not an action thiller. Don't read it if that is what you are looking for. But if you want a realistic portrayal of what goes on behind the government scenes in the spy game, this is definitely for you.
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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2002
A marvelous, bitter novel of ad hoc espionage and bureaucratic intrigue--though it dates from the Cold War, its ethical concerns are as timely as ever. The quality of writing throughout far surpasses the requirements of genre and the conclusion retains a spine-chilling power.

A previous review here demands refutation. A so-called "Reader" insists that "Le Carre knows nothing about espionage, foreign affairs, international relations, spy technology etc." "Reader"'s argument? "In the 1960's Czechoslovakia was surrounded by the world's most sophisticated security perimeter.... To Western espionage, however, this iron curtain was easily permeable; high-tech espionage aircraft and satellites routinely overflew Soviet [sic] territory, mapping government installations with a precision far greater than any earth-bound surveyor.... [I]n [Le Carre's] world the Czech border has a chicken-wire fence guarded by local boys with rusty Mannlichers. Aerial spying is carried out by airline pilots, presumably leaning out of their jets to snap a few candids with concealed polaroids!"

A few comments in response:

A) The U-2 spy plane and Corona spy satellite were U.S. programs--Britain's aerial espionage technology lagged well behind in the mid-60's. "Reader" imagines a "Western espionage" monolith that did not exist. While the U.S. and Great Britain were, of course, close allies, their interests were by no means identical and their intelligence agencies were not joined at the hip. "The Looking Glass War"--which, of course, concerns (fictional!) operations by British intelligence--includes passages offering explicit rationale for not immediately involving the U.S., thus necessitating the use of relatively primitive information-gathering techniques.

B) Aside from the political issues "Reader" seems unconscious of, the technology referred to would have been completely irrelevant to the mission described in the latter half of the book--the identification and detailed description of a well-cloaked arsenal of tactical, medium-range rockets (not the large ballistic weapons the U-2 and Corona excelled at sighting)--"what they look like, where they are, and above all who mans them"...that is, precisely the sort of job for which only an "earth-bound surveyor" would do.

C) The suspected rocket site, and thus the critical, climactic action in the book, is located in East Germany. The entire book is concerned with gathering information on and infiltrating East Germany. There is not a single mention of Czechoslovakia in all of "The Looking Glass War." Not one. Did "Reader" even read it?

Don't be dissuaded from reading it yourself.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2007
As a complete book, "The Looking Glass War" isn't perhaps one of Le Carre's crowning achievements. But in its specific anatomy of the human deterioration, moral depravity and sometimes inhumanness of the cold war it is one of his deepest studies. If "The Spy who came out from the Cold" and "Smiley's People" are symphonies, then this is a tight piece of chamber music. It could have been tighter -- cutting off about a forth of the book would have improved it -- but it offers a hermetic, very troubling experience. It is less about suspense and action and more about relations, morality and compassion. For my part, it is the one book of Le Carre's that remained with me and troubled me the longest. If you liked the more serious aspects of Le Carre's work, then this one will engage you. If you enjoy his work mostly for the action and suspense, however, this one may come on as a little tedious.

Albeit a cameo by Smiley (in one of his least attractive moments), the characters are mostly new. The plot itself is simple: a small, practically defunct British spy agency with a mandate for military targets that has been lagging on aimlessly since WWII, gets one more shot at mounting an intelligence operation. WWII was their best of times, the source of their pride and nostalgia: since then, stripped from financing, backwards on technology, they are no more than a bureaucratic specter. But the gods of warfare reward their zealots, and out of the blue, the agency is offered to retrieve some crucial information about military installations beyond the iron wall (I'll be stingy with details so as not to spoil too much). Everybody wakes up. As they do not have even a single operational agent (nor a radio, weapons, vehicles etc.), they must recruit one, hastily train and employ him; but they need to constantly lie to him, else he might realize how reduced they have become. The relations between the agency's personnel -- the washed-out old hand, the eager young assistant, the ambitious chief -- and the agent, Leiser (codename Mayfly) is what the book is mostly about.

Le Carre, of course, never quite revels to us why Leiser accepts his role (it was mostly a mistake to be heavy-handed about that, as in the subpar "The Night Manager.") Little by little, hints are dropped. A naturalized Pole, dapper, womanizer, Leiser is in fact in desperate need of discipline in his life. An extremely lonely man, the small circle of old-hand spymasters around him supply him with a sense of belonging, friendship, perhaps even love (at a certain point, young Avery realizes that he is being played by his superiors quite as Leiser is. His job is to have Leiser like, possibly love him; and he does.) One of the more pathetic portions of the book is the 48-hours leave that Leiser is granted during his training. While all are certain that this "ladies' man" is having the time of his life, he in fact roams London streets aimlessly, dissipating the time until he can return to the ad-hoc training facility (a house in Oxford rented for one month). What Leiser otherwise wants, is to be thoroughly English. He is insulted to the extent of rage when his colloquialisms are corrected by the jolly but insensitive cockney radio trainer, Johnson. He craves Englishness. It is something I wholly do not understand myself, but Le Carre is effective in convincing us that such a passion exists. It is beyond merely belonging, it is becoming.

So much is Leiser involved in his new life, that his common sense does not reveal to him the amateur nature of the preparations. The radio technology he is expected to use is outdated, cumbersome and easy to intercept; there is no clear plan of action, really, except for getting him in; certainly no one gives serious thought how to get him out. The readers suspect this since a totally mundane assignment that Avery embarked on earlier, which was botched for lack of preparation and professionalism, is praised by his superiors as a success; so utterly afraid of facing their own incompetence they have lost that all-important ability of learning from mistakes.

The Circus, their rival agency where Smiley works, of course realizes this. firmly in the grasp of Control, with Smiley as his lieutenant and sometimes conscience, the Circus observes and keeps its distance (in terms of Le Carre continuity, the story takes place in the mid-sixties, before Smiley's first retirement). However, neither Control nor Smiley will deny the specter team the rope that they require to hang their own agent when everything, of course --


goes wrong.

There is one point in the book where all of a sudden things turn serious: as Leiser crosses the border (burdened by an old 50-pound radio unit in a suitcase) he quietly and efficiently kills a sentry with a knife. All of a sudden we realize that, his inadequate training notwithstanding, this is a resourceful, dangerous man. This action, however, turns out to be a damning mistake (but why not commit mistakes in contingencies against which he was neither warned nor prepared for?) -- and it is not the last. In fact, in view of the sloppy preparation, Leiser goes much further than one might expect. Still, this is not very far. At that point enters Smiley, gently hinting that the entire operation was redundant, and could and should have been avoided.

This is where Smiley's (as well as the others', save Avery) coldbloodiness plays out: even when it is clear that the operation must be aborted, there is no reason to "play by the war rules" as Lecher "proudly" declares (what a pathetic figure he is reduced to in that scene). For, even if they must relinquish Leiser and abort the operation, they can still give him a head start and a fighting chance to escape. The reason is that the only way that the East-Germans can locate him is through his radio transmissions. Every transmission begins with a brief exchange of identification call signals. At that point, they can signal him to abort transmitting, dump the radio set and attempt to get away. But they don't: when Leiser begins his transmission, there is no one on the other side to receive them. They don't just "disown" him, in Smiley's whitewashed language. They are abandoning him to die when they can still do something for him. He simply doesn't matter anymore, since "we play by the war rules."


This is a book about how people who were once decent and resourceful have deteriorated into coldbloodiness, sheer ambition and becoming all-out technicians who inoculate themselves against the moral implications of their actions. It goes beyond the manipulations that Smiley performs in "The Spy who came out from the Cold." Albeit thin on the action and at times redundant and tedious on the narrative, this is one of Le Carre's most profound studies of the human condition.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 1998
This is a actually a beautifully written little story of foolishness, arrogance and betrayal. It's true the plot is a bit thinner than most of this great writer's work, but this tragedy is about the the souls (or lack thereof) of the men who send other men ill-prepared into mortal danger, and their twisted thought processes. Not Le Carre's best work, but darn good.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
"The Looking Glass War," published in 1965, was British spymaster John LeCarre's fourth published novel, coming right after "A Call for the Dead," "A Murder of Quality," and, the big one, "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." It's thus an early work of the many-times published, now famous Le Carre, but it gives us many themes his work will revisit.

To begin with, it's set, operationally, in the author's German-speaking comfort zone, east of the Berlin wall. It may make the earliest mention of "Belgravia Cockney," an upper-class drawl, favored by the intelligence community, that resembles the lower class's speech; it will reappear in almost every book. It opens with a riveting set piece, and closes with another; the creation of these set pieces is certainly one of Le Carre's great abilities. It shows us some of the author's great spycraft knowledge; his care at weaving complex plots, though this early work's is much thinner than his later ones; his powerful descriptive writing, and ability to envision many interesting characters and give them enjoyable dialogue. It will introduce and reintroduce some of LeCarre's best known characters: George Smiley, Peter Guillam, his lieutenant; even Alec Leamas, who was "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold--" we're told he's dead.

Its plot is set in what will become familiar Le Carre territory. A small British Intelligence agency, whose brief is strictly military matters, suddenly has reason to believe the Russians are placing missiles in East Germany: remember the Cuba missile crisis?

This small agency has been years fighting, and losing, a turf war for power with LeCarre's vaunted circus, the intelligence agency supreme. LeClerq, head of the smaller agency, is no match for the wily Control, nor for his lieutenant Smiley, already introduced in "Call for the Dead," and "Spy Who Came In From The Cold," and destined, as all LeCarre fans know, for an illustrious career.

LeClerc's people have inadequate spycraft, as all frequent LeCarre readers will recognize; they are dependent upon World War II technology. Other men will suffer and die for this agency head's anxiety to aggrandize his agency in its political war with its sister agency. Control and Smiley won't have to do much, either; just withhold a few new toys. So its vintage LeCarre territory: the men in the field are more victimized by fighting Whitehall mandarins than by the enemy. LeClerq will first send in Taylor, a man who's been in overt services all his life and not prepared for the covert side. He'll then suddenly reactivate and send in the unfortunate Polish refugee Fred Leiser, who worked for the agency during World War II: Leiser is much too old for the mission, and woefully underprepared and under-equipped.

About that title: "looking glass" is English-speak for the American mirror. Remember that immortal Marx Brothers' scene: Groucho and Harpo before the mirror-- or is it plain clear glass?
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2002
It is a truism that most generals spend their efforts preparing for the last war. The Maginot Line of the 1930s would have been a wonderful defense against the German invasion of 1914. It was completely ineffective in 1939. In Looking Glass, a British military intelligence department left over from WWII, by 1962 a complete dinosaur, sought any project which could justify its continued existence. Having found (it thought) such a project, it guarded it jealously from the enemy, i.e., British political intelligence. It had no active operatives so rerecruited a 40ish WWII agent and retrained him using tapes dubbed from old 78RPM records and gave him an inaccurate map, vague instructions and a 40 lb. WWII radio to lug into East Germany where he killed a border guard,lurched bizarrely about the countryside and sent periodic radio messages, which were naturally intercepted by the East Germans, who were completely mystified until an old sergeant had a light bulb go on in his head and remembered how British spies sent messages on their crystal radios during the war. The novel ends when responsible intelligence people in London awaken to what has been done by the dinosaurs and immediately cut bait to try to preserve deniability of official British involvement. The novel satirizes not only the intelligence bumbling (which I suspect LeCarre had endured) but also the WWII spy novel genre.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 1999
While not as polished as some of his later work, especially the "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", "Honourable Schoolboy", "Smiley's People" trilogy, this book does a pretty good job examining some of the themes that have characterized le Carre's work over the years (loyalty, betrayal, disillusionment). I can only assume the negative reviewers were expecting something more in the vein of James Bond.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 1998
I was surprised when I read the negative reviews on this book... I read it several years ago and found it very believeable. Human greed, the senselessness of bureaucracy and the competition between goverment departments... these are some of the very real things that are explored in the book in a 'spy-story' setting. Of course it is more of a serious novel than a thriller... those reading it for getting kicks out of following the heroic adventures of a glamorous spy will be disappointed. The people are human, with real peoples' weaknesses and faults, and the enemy people (east germans) are all too human. I can understand the average thriller fan's not liking this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2014
I really miss the Cold War. Sure, we were continually on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but we possessed a moral certitude totally missing from our current world. We knew who our enemies were, the Soviets and their sympathizers. We could speak out against the Evil Empire and their minions without being labeled a racist, an ethnist, or some other kind of "ist." Despite the moral imperative that drove the governments and their citizenry on both sides of the Iron Curtain, there was a high level of moral ambiguity among those who actually waged the war, the spies sent to ferret out secrets in foreign lands or the clandestine bureaucrats ever caught between the Official Secrets Act and their personal lives. While there were numerous spy fantasies, such as James Bond and all his clones, personifying the righteousness of the Cold War in the middle of the Twentieth Century, there were also many writers who took the path less traveled, who sent their bitter and disillusioned spies into the cold, or brought them out of it, and one of the best being John Le Carre.

Le Carre scored a big hit with "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," probably the first espionage book I read that had a more or less realistic protagonist. He followed it with "The Looking-Glass War," and for those who don't speak the Queen's English, a looking-glass is just a mirror. In the book we get a look at a bit of interdepartmental rivalry between two different factions within Britain's intelligence apparatus. On one side we have the Department, an organization created to fight Nazis, which finds itself out of its depth in the Cold War, but which is seeking some of the glory of old; on the other side, we have Circus, the anti-Soviet espionage group run by spymaster George Smiley, though the Circus rather recedes into the background as the plot progresses.

Since the Department has few of the resources available to the Circus, they are running an operation against what they are sure are secret missile bases. They bribe a commercial airline pilot to stray from his route to photograph the are under suspicion, then send an agent to pick up the film, who promptly gets himself run over in the opening chapters of the book. From there the plot unfolds upon a bureaucrat forced to become a field agent, much to the chagrin of his confused and often caustic wife, to whom he has revealed a bit too much of his work. Also brought into the plot is an East German expatriate sent back to confirm what the lost film may have shown. Ultimately, what the Department proves is that they were really good at fighting Nazis.

Despite the passage of nearly fifty years, "The Looking-Glass War" holds up remarkably well, much better than many other spy books written around the same time. I think that is because Le Carre focuses on characters, their strengths and their foibles, rather than the McGuffin of the plot.
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