You may have noticed I’ve been reading a few spy books. I started Le Carré in 2013, liked the first two, didn’t care for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (though it’s still a great title), and got bogged down in The Looking Glass War – the 4th Smiley novel, though he’s not in it very much. Le Carré wrote it as an antidote to the glamorizing of the spy business he felt was too much a part of Spy and boy did he succeed. Looking Glass focuses on the other branch of intelligence, military intelligence, that has shrunk to a tiny forgotten department with no cars, no operations, barely any staff. How this happened in the Cold War, I’m not sure. But, say it did. This group suddenly has the opportunity to do some spying of its own. They have some very poor pictures of what might be rockets in East Germany. They try to get more, but their courier is killed. Whether it is a simple hit and run or a murder because of the operation is unknown. They are excited, morale rises, they are going to send a man in. The man they pick worked with them in the war doing radio, which is what they need. Of course, that was twenty years before. Things have changed. Leiser is a mechanic, not involved with radio or communications in civilian life, but he’s apparently their only option, unless they want to give the project over to the Circus, which they don’t. They can’t do it without the Circus, but they certainly shouldn’t have done it with them. Helpful on the surface, they have their own agenda and they don’t give a rat’s what happens to our intrepid little group.
It does seem to teach you pretty well how to launch a small scale operation and what they do wrong along the way. The opening encounter at the airport is pretty much textbook how not to do a live drop. Poor choice of location, poor choice of personnel, just bad. Unfortunately, the spycraft does not get a whole lot better. What you learn in this book is how not to do things, which makes it rather depressing. If you wanted to skip this one, I don’t think you’ll miss much. For people who supposedly did a lot of this twenty years ago, they’re hopelessly amateur. For Avery, the only young new guy in the Department, this is his introduction to operations and he seems hopelessly unprepared for it. Le Carré certainly succeeded in taking away the glamor, but what’s left is dismaying. Allen Dulles, unfortunately, seemed to think it a very true book. I am aware, of course, that this is only one side of the story. There are competent agents in the world running operations well. It’s not all a pointless waste of time, lives, and resources. Perhaps it is salutary to have a book that reminds us that where there is human enterprise there may be incompetence, greed, short-sightedness, impatience, and all manner of human failings. People sometimes have bad ideas. Sometimes these ideas are backed with passion and the waste of human lives, time and money at the end is staggering. We look back and shake our heads and say why did they do that? Why didn’t they stop? The comforting thing is that the operation in this book is small. It is easy to read this and say, look, here was a mistake, there they should have done something else. Perhaps examination of a badly managed project on a small scale can teach us what to look for in a larger disaster. It seems very difficult for humans to say, this is not working. I need to rethink this. To change one’s mind.
Also, if you haven’t read Spy, don’t read the prologue, he totally spoils it.