What I Read in November 2020

I only managed two Le Carre books in November. I don’t know that I will ever get back to my pre-law school pace.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

John Le Carre

I think this, or maybe Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is Le Carre’s most famous work. I see why this one is so well regarded. Alec Leamas is in charge of a spy ring in divided Germany. When his last active agent is killed, Leamas is called back to London. However, he is approached by higher ups at the Circus to take on one last mission, posing as a disaffected former agent and infiltrating the other side to take down a long-standing nemesis.

Leamas is an old operator who thinks he knows how amoral his business is, but he really doesn’t. He is contrasted with other characters who are either more idealistic than he is, or more pragmatic and amoral. Leamas’s actions are amoral, but he still believes in his cause. But as the mission goes on, he starts to doubt that. If his actions, and the actions of Control and the Circus, are the actions of the good guys, how good can they be. The whole thing comes in under 300 pages and packs a lot into it. It is really good and gives the reader a lot to chew on.

The Looking Glass War

John Le Carre

This one is brutal. It is a comedy of sorts, with a decrepit, failing spy organization bumbling into an apparent mission and having to activate the machinery of running a spy operation for the first time since WWII. The head of the organization is still caught up in an interagency rivalry with another British spy organization, the Circus of many Le Carre books, but seemingly unaware of how little his group can accomplish. The closest thing to a real protagonist is John Avery, a newcomer to the agency with no real skills or experience. They’ve had reports of Soviets amassing weapons in Germany, and the man they sent to retrieve pictures of the site has turned up dead. After a mission to retrieve his body doesn’t go well, they decide to activate a German speaking field agent from the war to go and take a look himself.

The whole thing is a comedy of errors. Everyone just wants one last, or first, chance at glory. There is no real evidence that the lead they are chasing is anything at all; it is all a waste. The first thing Leiser, the agent, does is kill someone, essentially ruining the mission as it starts. The whole thing is a mass of failure and incompetence from the jump. Yet still, Le Carre makes the reader feel something. You do start to care for Avery; he doesn’t really accomplish anything, but he is trying very hard. But he’s too green and too unskilled to recognize how futile everything is. When it gets to the end, your sympathies are with him as it all goes awry.