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on 14 June 2010
A brilliant book. Absolutely gripping partly because of the nature of the story - spy fiction - but mainly because of the horrifying stupidity of the Circus higher echelons. It's all portrayed as a bit of a game, Boy's Own heroics, but instead of a grazed knee or a black eye, death and unintentional betrayal are the result. Nobody learns from what has happened, Smiley & Control keep a Godlike distance. There are no heroes, only a grim sort of Valley of Death idea where the only cost is to the poor deluded patriot. This seems more like condemnation than praise but the book is so well written, with such biting mordant humour, that it is a book I shall read again.
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on 15 May 2004
A bleak, unusual and compelling thriller. Fans of le Carre will know not to expect car chases and glamour, but this novel also has little of the complexity, puzzle-solving and intrigue of his better known spy stories.
The plot is fairly simple: a small and out-of-favour military intelligence department in London have a potentially huge discovery on their hands - an unconfirmed and sketchy report of Soviet missiles being stored in East Germany (the period is Cold War, early sixties). In a bid to confirm the discovery - and regain some of their former status and credibility - the department decides to find and train an agent to go over the border, something they have not done for many years.
The majority of the book is taken up with the preparation and training for the mission and the shifting politics and loyalties of those involved. This provides a strange mix of convincing technical detail and le Carre's always excellent character sketches and observations on a certain type of English character.
Without giving too much away of the story, the heart of the book is a study of ambition, resentment, jealousies and fading glories in the intelligence community during this period. The outcome of the mission is almost secondary, but the reader can discern the likely outcome as le Carre carefully reveals the endless possibilities of small details and judgements that can mean the difference between success and failure in this environment.
In conclusion, not your average spy story, not typical le Carre, but still engrossing and worth a read.
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on 19 May 2012
I haven't read this book in some time but I have read it a number of times in the past, and I've just listened to the BBC's excellent adaptation of it.

Memory of the intricate details of the novel itself fail me: good. Personally I can't bear reviews which simply chart a story's narrative arc almost verbatim. I much prefer a review to give me a sense of the impression of a book, or something like that. The beauty is in discovering for yourself what this is, and one book may mean many things to different people, of course.

One recurring theme of a lot of reviews of The Looking Glass War is how it received a relatively poor reception, how its realism contributed to its failure and the like. I'm tempted to dismiss this as utter nonsense, but being 30 years old I can't quite judge to exactly what degree. Either way, nonsense it is. Its realism is essential to its potency.

To be sure, its immediate predecessor, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is one of the finest examples of both plot and literature in the English language, a rare beast.

Nonetheless, as far as a novel can describe the bare ignobility of a most subtle human rationale in both personal and political motivation, it suffers no superior, and I believe it serves as a superb key to Le Carré's work, even as (almost contradictorily) it lays the ground for the reader to be even more enthralled by his more densely plotted works.

But therein lies the attraction of John le Carré: contradiction, and humanity. They go hand in hand, don't you think?
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on 14 January 2014
'It's so easy," observes George Smiley, "to get hypnotised by technique."

The technique Smiley referring to is spy craft, but I could not help feeling that it might also be an oblique comment on the way that a reader can be hypnotised by the technique of a writer. There were several moments midway through this book when I thought seriously about putting it down and not picking it back up again, and it was only my faith in Le Carré's technique that kept me turning the pages.

This is not because it's a bad book. On the contrary, it's acutely observed, beautifully written, alternately moving and gripping. But it is deeply and pervasively bleak.

I read somewhere that the secret to creating a successful best-seller was to focus on characters who were supremely good at what they did. "The Looking Glass War" turns this premise on its head. George Smiley, Le Carré's ultimate master spy, makes only fleeting visits to these pages, and The Circus (Le Carré's term for the Secret Service) acts as a distant, if not always disinterested, by-stander. Most of the book's attention is focused on "The Department", a clandestine, and not very clearly identifed, adjunct of the British Government which enjoyed some years of glory during WWII, but clings on without any real purpose in the Cold War Europe of the 1960s.

The employees of The Department are not wicked. They believe (or try to believe) that the work they do, collating military intelligence from beyond the Iron Curtain, is important and right. But they are weak, self-serving, more concerned with office politics at home than with the mortal consequences of the work they do abroad. Worst of all they are hopelessly outclassed. The intermittent appearances of George Smiley serve (amongst other things) to highlight the yawning gap in competence which has opened up between The Department and the real secret servants on both sides of the Wall without The Department even being aware of it.

It is this disastrous inadequacy, and the various forms of delusion and deception which preserve it, that Le Carré exploits to create the moral and emotional heart of the book. Through a careful, almost anatomical, dissection of the lives, loves, desires and small, sad hopes of a group of self-deluded men as they prepare for and perform a series of missions against Communist East Germany, the book reiterates its central theme: that when choices of life and death are made by inadequate men the results can only be tragic.

Le Carré's prose is always cool and controlled. As with the subtle layer of menace which underlies the most seemingly innocent observations of George Smiley, you have to listen closely to catch the rage that simmers underneath. But it is that rage, understated but never wholly silent, a moral fury on behalf of the innocent and the exploited and a blistering contempt for those who use them without either care or thought, which gives the book its power, and turns a tale both small and squalid into a work of greatness.
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on 1 April 2012
The Looking Glass War takes a classic thriler set-up - rumours of Russian rockets in East Germany, threatening another Cuban Missile crisis - but rather than using this as a hook for gunfights and plot twists, instead unrolls a satire of the Cold War British intelligence community. Whereas Ian Fleming made British Intelligence a vital and brilliant Cold War player, Le Carre here gives us bureaucratic infighting, left over WW2 spies and equipment, and squabbles over expenses and pensions. Perhaps the main theme is the contrast with Brtiain's WW2 glory days, as a creaking system mounts an operation to send an agent into Germany to find out the truth. George Smiley appears as a bit character, used by MI6 to outsmart a rival spy outfit.

This book has the best features of Le Carre's earliest and best books. Characters leap out with a few sharp details, institutional culture feels real and alive, Le Carre's grip of tradecraft is vivid, (much of the book covers a courier operation and then agent training), the motives of agents and their handlers get as much attention as their actions, and the tensions and suspicions of the Cold War come alive. It feels far more realistic than either contemporary spy novels, especially Bond, or Le Carre's post Cold War books.

Don't read it if you want an action thriller, or even a classic Tinker Tailor type spy novel, in which the hero/Britain come out on top. But if you want an unusual book about spies and their craft, written at the peak of Le Carre's writing abilities, I strongly recommend it.
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This is the fourth of a series of BBC adaptations of all John Le Carre's Smiley books, starring Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. Unlike the other reviewers I've never read the book, so cannot comment on textual accuracy.

The story centres around a Military intelligence unit known as `The Department' and its attempts to relive their glory days of the war whilst simultaneously cocking a snook at their upstart rivals in British Intelligence, the Circus.

When some juicy intelligence suggesting Soviet missiles in East Germany falls into the lap of ageing department leader Leclerc, he is blind to all caution as he tries to resurrect his outfit as a live operational unit, and regain the status lost to the Circus during the cold war years. To get things going he does not need to worry about the Soviets or East Germans, it is the Circus, supposedly on the same side that he needs to outmanoeuvre. The Circus is represented by George Smiley, patiently and indulgently watching over the operation. There are several themes of trust and obedience running through the story, which leads to a tense, if ultimately demoralising, ending.

As with the other dramas in this series, this is a gripping listen. This is due in no small part to the actors - Ian McDiarmid as Leclerc, Philip Jackson as old hand Haldane and Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. Patrick Kennedy shines in the pivotal role of Avery. Ian McDiarmid is especially good as the ambitious Leclerc, remembering the glory days and wanting just another taste. The audio production is excellent, and generally manages to really set the scene, especially in the final tense few minutes with the operative being hunted in East Germany and his handlers waiting anxiously just over the border for any news.

There are two hour long episodes, each on a separate disc, in a normal size jewel case. There are limited liner notes with a short essay about Le Carre and a cast list.

This is a quality production; I look forward to hearing the others in the series.
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NB: As is their wont, Amazon have bundled reviews of the BBC audio book radio adaptation with the novel itself. This review is of the 2CD BBC radio adaptation.

With The Looking Glass War, John le Carre started to crystallise the theme that would dominate most of his subsequent novels - stories of doomed or compromised operations based on dubious intelligence that inevitably fail due to the human element. No matter how perfect the planning may be - and it's far from perfect in The Looking Glass War - it's a world with no place for humanity but which relies almost entirely on human beings who constantly forget that. In this case the human element is old men in a department that has outlived its time staging an operation they're no longer equipped for, not simply to recapture the glories of their wartime youth but also to convince themselves that they are still relevant in a world where every taxi fare on expenses is questioned and the `political' operations at the rival Circus get all the funding and all the Ministers' confidence.

The film version, though moderately successful on its own terms, failed by relying more on the plot mechanics than the subtext, ultimately becoming little more than another insubstantially cynical spy yarn by casting a much younger lead and trying to turn it into a star vehicle for Ryan's Daughter's Christopher Jones, in the process losing that crucial element of old men who couldn't admit they were no longer up to the job, which is a bit like casting Zac Effron as King Lear to try to pull in the kids. Shaun McKenna's generally excellent radio adaptation doesn't make the same mistake, focusing on the operation as a whole, making it clear to everyone but its characters just why it's doomed from the very start. As with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Smiley is a minor player, mostly a sceptical observer before briefly playing a crucial role in the finale, but he's the only one who can see what's going wrong with stone cold clarity and logic.

The events are set in motion by a potential Cuban missile crisis in East Germany, with Iain McDiarmid's outdated department mounting an old-style operation to send one of their wartime operatives behind the wall to find out whether there are missiles close to the border. As with all operations, the real mission is to resolve doubt, but the motives are less focussed. Everyone is too caught up in the excitement of actually getting to do something after so long marking time that they overlook all the warning signs for fear of derailing everything, with typically shambolic results. Unfortunately after a superb first part, you get the impression that there might be a similar problem with this two-part adaptation: it could really do with a third part - the second half feels rushed and the ending overplays its romantic allusions about making a man with nothing to love fall in love with his mission and, in a way, the person who sends him on it only to be dumped and literally cut dead. The ending is quietly chilling nonetheless, but it could have been so much more effective if the inevitably doomed agent Lieser had been allowed to make more of an impression in the narrative instead of almost being treated as much like a dispensable, disavowable pawn by the adaptation as by his recruiters. It's a fine adaptation nonetheless, but it falls short of its potential.
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on 19 October 2009
I am a John Le Carre fan - and I've read all of his books - and this one, which has languished behind the blockbusters, has always been my favourite. But it's a difficult story to dramatise. There is no really strong story-line to get hold of. The story is actually a set of sub-stories about betrayal, love, mediocrity and decline. It's a tough book to enjoy in some ways - as the experience of reading is more the journey than the destination. For me this dramatisation did not make enough of Leiser's character and temperament and motive for saying "yes" to the job - there's also some muddled storylines around LeClerc & Woodford, which don't quite demonstrate the preservation of the mediocre against the reality of the outside world which has changed since the war. From a purely personal view I was expecting Haldane's voice to be more sinewy & donnish than the more gruff practical sound that he seems to have - so didn't quite hit the spot for me. I have to say though, for a difficult book it's a great attempt and I've listened to it a few times now.
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on 7 March 2010
First published in 1965 after the worldwide success of "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold", Le Carré once more, in a sense, returns to WW II. In his debut novel "Call for the Dead", he introduced his readers to George Smiley (GS), who had "a very nasty war", spending four years in (pre-) wartime Germany. "The Looking Glass War" is situated in Finland, the UK and Germany, some 20 years after the war.
WW II is still very much on the minds of the surviving senior staff of a small section of the Ministry of Defence, which has been downsized and marginalised during the two decades since the war. It still has an archive on armaments and military matters, a network of couriers performing legitimate duties and even runs some rather dubious networks. Neither senior nor junior staff have been operational in recent times. Until suddenly a chain of events unfurls, prompted by rumours of a new missile site near the border with West Germany, which may or may not develop into something momentous. If handled well, it may put the agency back on the map again...
On behalf of his lifelong employer, the Circus (MI6), GS performs different roles at different stages of this novel. He is never a dominant character, and in the end he is not saving the day but preventing worse from happening. As always Le Carré can pin down a character with a few lines of speech. Accordingly, plenty of rope is handed out in this volume. A very sad and very devious book. Great on atmosphere, context and action. Highly recommended.
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on 3 April 2001
Le Carre has a great gift for writing fantastic spy stories. In this book, the department responsible for military intelligence find it necessary to send an agent into East Germany - something that they haven't done for a great many years. George Smiley puts in a few appearances as a guiding hand. The whole book is fantastic and well up to Le Carre's normal standard.
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