Books »The Looking Glass War

by John Le Carre (1965)

At this point I really shouldn’t be shocked that I share a common interest: a love of John Le Carre, with those greying men in neckties and with golf habits I always hear about but it still surprises me (Does this mean they’re right about Clive Cussler too?). Le Carre is a magnificent story teller, his world of spies and espionage is uniquely intriguing in that is doesn’t include gadgets, studly men and super villains but rather muddled intelligence, old men with often tired or unforgiving wives, and enemies that are vague at best. In The Looking Glass War, the vagueness couldn’t be more pronounced. Set during the Cold War in a department known only as “The Department”, some sketchy intelligence leads to even an even sketchier mission.

The “heroes” are men who thrived during the War and knew exactly their roles within it but who are now feeling ignored, confused and washed up against the less obvious tactics and rules of a War waged without guns and maneuvering. Out of date on the newest technology, flailing when it comes to covert operations and desperate for the honor and respect their previous positions use to garner, the Department headed by Leclerc is overly zealous to send a man into Germany to investigate some blurry photos with possibly significant implications. The recruited agent, a Polish, well dressed ladies man named Leiser also had his heyday years earlier but is completely unaware that he’s putting his life in the hands of those equally rusty and clumsy. After spending time with the men as they prepare for the mission one can see that tragedy is inevitable.

Le Carre always provides a realistic portrayal of spying, but apparently the frank banality of this one made it less popular than his other novels. I found it compelling and a great study of characters. Even our favorite, George Smiley makes several appearances.

It was adapted into a movie in 1969 starring Anthony Hopkins. In my usual habit, I cast it in my mind with James McAvoy as the young Avery, any actor that looks similar to Marco Pierre White as Leiser, Stephen Frye as Woolcroft, Michael Gambon as Haldane, since Alec Guinness has passed, Sir Ian McKellan as Smiley and for some reason I could only see Magnum PI’s John Hillerman as Leclerc.

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Posted on April 20, 2011

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