'The Looking Glass War' is the most difficult book of le Carre's 'Smiley series' to read through, but it's also the most personal and frank look at the Cold War era spy culture that the author has ever given. The novel is dense and slow burning, but it's also the first novel where le Carre fully realizes his power of mood and characterization. He spends time laboring over detailed training methods and aspects of spy craft, isolating his infighting agents and readers alike in the lies and futility of their war games.
John le Carre has said that 'Looking Glass War' is the most accurate depiction he's ever written of his time in the MI6, and subsequently it's among his least popular books. The story goes outside the typical realm of the Circus, and instead traces the endeavors of an unspecified subgroup called The Department, who seem to specialize in military and arms related spy maneuvers. The Department is seeking to reassert itself and compete with The Circus in the post-WWII years, so they send a Polish agent into East Germany to investigate an enemy missile site.
One of the more interesting and unremarked upon aspects of 'The Looking Glass War' is that the homosexual subtext that lingers through many of the Circus boys of the Smiley series is brought into full view as a plot point here. Le Carre's spy novels are notably bleak, but he does excel at writing in the strands of a (typically fractured) love affair. 'Looking Glass War' perhaps gives us le Carre's most emotional and romantic relationship between agent Fred Leiser and his young handler, John Avery. With typical English repression, the blossoming of this pairing is never fully granted to us, but the passion and loyalty underlying the tryst and the dedication to public service result in some of le Carre's profoundest writing ever. Unlike their flashier Brit spy novel cousin, James Bond, the protagonists of le Carre's novels are not men whom any of us should aspire to be. One of the central questions that arises throughout the series is just what sort of person dedicates himself to such a life as this, and why he does it. 'The Looking Glass War' muses that the answer may lie in money, loyalty or duty, but above all, it is because of love. But like the codes of an agent on a death watch, that love is rarely answered and more commonly sent out blindly and without response, into the rushing snow of the Cold War.