The Looking Glass War is billed as “A George Smiley Novel.” It is the fourth installment in the series of John Le Carré books where Smiley plays a part, but his role here is very small.
The main story concerns the U.K.’s “Department” (military intelligence) competing with its “Circus” (political intelligence) for glory. The Department ran agents against the Nazis during World War II but has since fallen in missions, personnel, and funding. The Circus, on the other hand, seems to be gobbling up all those things. So, when the Department receives intelligence of a possible missile program in East German, it reactivates an old agent to confirm that program’s existence. The program doesn’t exist, the agent is captured but his fate left unknown, and Smiley is sent by Circus’ “Control” to communicate the reorganization of the Department.
While The Looking Glass War has some interesting bits about interdepartmental rivalry, the training of spies, and the perils of espionage to those who are carrying it out, on the whole, the novel failed to capture my imagination. I read it more out of duty than delight. Even Le Carré admits in his Introduction that it was received poorly by critics. After reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, this novel was a disappointment. Thankfully, Le Carré followed The Looking Glass War with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I am currently reading, and that is a real page-turner.
If you, like me, prefer to read series’ novels in order, I can honestly recommend that you skip this one and go directly from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You won’t be missing much.
John Le Carré, The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2013; orig. 1965).
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