John Le Carre Chronological Challenge 4

And so the Cold War continues. Following on from Le Carre's groundbreaking The Spy who came in from the Cold, his next novel was The Looking Glass War. It's a novel that was very much of its time, and yet, I had the horrible feeling reading this that this was old ground that had recently been re-travelled.

In '60's Cold War Europe, an agency on the periphery of MI6 receives news of possible Russian troop movements on the East / West German border. When an inexperienced agent goes to Finland to pick up some photographs of missiles on the move, and meets an untimely end, the agency is confirmed in their suspicions, and determines to put a man on the ground to find out what exactly is going on...

The words "Weapons of Mass Destruction" were quickly echoing round my head shortly into this novel, as the agency prepares to go with war with the Soviet Union on the flimsiest of evidence (indeed it would appear to be a KGB "sting"). As with Spy who came in from the cold Le Carre is adept at portraying the genuinely loyal and brave people who worked for the Secret Services throughout the Second World War and the Cold War, while portraying the services themselves as often less than perfect, with motives that were sometimes allied more to personal pettiness than a desire to do what was best. In Looking glass war a former Polish agent, who had served faithfully through the war in Holland, will be sacrificed for the self-serving interests of some agency members.

It's a chilling read contrasting the youthful enthusiasms of new agents against the jaded worldly attitudes of the Smileys and Controls. Much to my surprise, yet again, the Smiley that I thought I remembered doesn't come well out of this novel. The Looking glass war has an oddly Alice in Wonderland feel about it where nothing is quite what it seems, and both sides are shown as manipulative, and not actually that dissimilar. Le Carre struggles with portraying women (this, I fear will be a common theme throughout the challenge), but no-one does Cold War skullduggery more convincingly or, I suspect, realistically than him. I didn't enjoy Looking Glass War as much as The Spy who came in from the cold, but it's still a superb piece of fiction, every bit as icy as the Cold War itself.


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