The Looking Glass War

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The Looking Glass War
JohnLeCarre TheLookingGlassWar.jpg
First-edition cover
Author John le Carré
Country United Kingdom
Series George Smiley
Genre Spy novel
Publisher William Heinemann (UK) & Putnam (USA)
Publication date
June 1965
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 246
ISBN 0-434-41200-7
Preceded by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Followed by A Small Town in Germany

The Looking Glass War is a 1965 spy novel by John le Carré about a British intelligence agency known as the Department and its attempts to infiltrate an agent into East Germany.

Plot summary[edit]

During the early 1960s, a British military intelligence organisation based in Blackfriars Road, London and referred to as "The Department," has been largely inactive since successfully running agents against the Nazis during the Second World War. Its rival is the more experienced and professional "Circus" led by "Control" and George Smiley.

The Department interprets intelligence from a source as evidence that Soviet missiles are being placed at Rostock, near the West German border. The Department's chief, Leclerc, sees it as an opportunity to re-live glory days and regain ground in its turf war with The Circus. To get aerial photographs, The Department pays a civilian pilot to "accidentally" divert his flight over the area. The man sent to collect the film is killed in a hit and run, and the film is lost. Further blunders are made when Leclerc's assistant, Avery, tries to retrieve the body in the hope that the film is still among his effects. When Leclerc requests assistance, Smiley and the Circus are alerted to The Department's new covert activities.

In spite of these compromising setbacks, The Department persuades the responsible Minister to allow them to send an agent into East Germany to discover the truth. Leclerc avoids involving The Circus directly, representing the whole operation as a training exercise. The Department reactivates one of its wartime agents, a middle-aged, naturalised Pole named Fred Leiser. During his preparation and training, his handlers have Leiser believe that The Department is still the large, vital and competent organisation he remembers from the war years, hiding from him that he is now their only agent, and that his equipment, supplied by The Circus, is obsolete.

When crossing the border, Leiser kills a young East German guard, an outrage which is widely published in the East German media as the work of Western "provocateurs". The incident shakes Leiser, who immediately loses his composure and begins obsessively ruminating over the man's death. Leiser meets a young German girl who agrees to give him aide in exchange for him taking her back to the West. Leiser makes radio transmissions from a hotel, forgetting to change frequencies as he continues to fixate on the border guard's death. The East Germans are aware that security has been breached, and set about locating Leiser. After informing Leclerc and his colleagues about the debacle, Smiley tactfully convinces Leclerc to abandon the operation, and to leave Leiser trapped in East Germany, explaining that his obsolete equipment and sloppy techniques will make denials more plausible. Receiving no response to his further radio transmissions from the East German woman's flat, Leiser continues with his mission. He is located in his hotel room, which is laid siege to by German and Russian soldiers. Leiser holds the German girl at knifepoint to cover her involvement with him; the reader last sees him being held at gunpoint in his hotel room, with his ultimately fate not revealed.

Smiley is sent by the Circus to round up Leclerc, Haldane and Avery, and terminate The Department's covert activities. Leclerc is diverted to a nonoperational role by convincing him of the existence of a massive, fictitious, "armoured spearhead" in Hungary. Haldane is upbraided for believing that the missiles existed in the first place - the site is an abandoned manoeuver ground, and their "defector" is a known hack with a previous record of identical fabrications. He is apparently mollified by their new roles as aides of Leclerc within an appended Research Section which presumably will be totally subservient to the Circus. Only Avery, who became devoted to Leiser, sobs inconsolably.


  • Leclerc: Director of "The Department;" a pompous, self-serving career bureaucrat.
  • Adrian Haldane: Veteran intelligence officer for The Department who has served since World War II. Assigned to run the operation and handle Leiser's training and infiltration into East Germany. Jaded and in ill health.
  • John Avery: 32-year-old aide to Leclerc, personally assigned by Leclerc to assist Haldane in training Leiser.
  • Fred Leiser: naturalised Pole who served as a recruited agent for The Department during World War II; has forgotten or is out of practice in nearly all his clandestine skills.
  • Jack Johnson: Veteran wireless operator for the Department, assigned to refresh Leiser's wireless skills on an obsolete, World War II-vintage radio set.
  • George Smiley: Intelligence officer and envoy from The Circus.
  • Control: Director ("operational control") of The Circus.


Poster of the film adaptation

A film of the novel was released in 1969, starring Christopher Jones as Leiser, Ralph Richardson as LeClerc (sic), and Anthony Hopkins as Avery. It was directed by Frank Pierson.[1]

As part of a series of dramatisation of Le Carré's work, the "Complete Smiley" series, BBC Radio produced a radio play of The Looking Glass War in 2009. Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, it starred Ian McDiarmid as Leclerc, Piotr Baumann as Leiser, Patrick Kennedy as Avery, and Simon Russell Beale as George Smiley.[2] As with other plays in this series it is now available as a CD set as ISBN 978-1-4084-0086-9.

Release details[edit]

  • 1965, UK, William Heinemann ISBN 0-434-41200-7, Pub date ? June 1965, Hardback
  • 1965, USA, Putnam Pub. Group ISBN 0-698-10218-5, Pub date ? June 1965, Hardback
  • 1965, USA, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, Book Club Edition, Hardback
  • 1966, UK, Pan, ISBN 0-330-20210-3, London, Paperwork
  • 1985, UK, G. K. Hall & Co. ISBN 0-8161-4040-5, Pub date ? April 1986, Hardback (Large Print)
  • 1991, UK, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd ISBN 0-340-55813-X, Pub date 21 November 1991, Hardback
  • 1991, UK, Hodder & Stoughton (Coronet) ISBN 0-340-55446-0, Pub date 21 November 1991, Paperback
  • 1992, USA, Ballantine Books ISBN 0-345-37736-2, Pub date ? March 1992, Paperback
  • 1999, UK, Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 1-84032-108-3, Pub date 22 February 1999, Audio cassette (read by John le Carré)


  1. ^ IMDb: The Looking Glass War (1969) Retrieved on 15 December 2009
  2. ^ BBC: The Looking Glass War (2009) Retrieved on 15 December 2009

External links[edit]