The Looking Glass War:
Formula for Success
After the success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, it would have been almost impossible for John le Carre's next novel to be a flop. The successor to Spy, The Looking Glass War, was an immediate bestseller, although it never had quite the selling power that Spy had, (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold topped the best seller list in 1964 while The Looking Glass War only caught the number four position in 1965.) Critics agreed that The Looking Glass War was a well written spy novel, but that it lacked the strong characterization that made Spy so unique. Nevertheless, The Looking Glass War had some of its own staying power, compiling a number of factors to formulate success. In his novel, Le Carre addressed a wide audience by choosing a genre of particular popularity at the time as well as commenting on the most pertinent world issue in the mid-sixties: the Cold War. On top of the fact that he wrote in the popular spy genre, is the speculation that Le Carre himself was involved with espionage while working with British Intelligence. With the possible 'inside' knowledge of the business, the author had an immediate one-up on any other writers in his field. With the success of its predecessor, its era-specific appeal, and the persona that Le Carre exemplified, The Looking Glass War is an example of a bestseller in which the author, whether purposefully or not, had a number of ingredients fall into the right place at the right time.
Before The Looking Glass War was ever published, its success was carefully planned out. Since Le Carre was a household name after The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Looking Glass War's entire identity was defined by what Le Carre's audience had seen before. Coward-McCann, the novel's publisher, launched a $50,000 initial advertising campaign which boasted statistics and reviews of Spy to try to convince the public of Looking Glass War's merit as a novel. While this build up may be held accountable for some people's disappointment once they read the novel, it can also be held responsible for Looking Glass War's place on the bestseller list within the first week of its publication. With every novel, there is an author and a story, and sometimes it is author that is selling, rather than the story. While the Looking Glass War is an example of this type of bestseller to some extent, there is a considerable amount of substance within the covers that also contributed to its success.
The Cold War came to a climax during the 1960's, when The Looking Glass War was published. As the Cold War progressed and began to exhibit more and more violence, it lost much its initial support. Its goal to contain communism seemed reasonable at the conclusion of World War II, but once the loss of American lives became involved, it became more and more unappealing. The 1950's witnessed the Korean War and the construction of the hydrogen bomb. By the time Looking Glass War was published, the American public had the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh in their minds and US military participation in Vietnam had begun the year before; needless to say, the popularity of the government and the Cold War were severely declining. Through the Looking Glass War, John le Carre expresses his own anti-Cold War sentiments in a number of ways. In the words of John L. Cobb, "Unequivocally, both The Looking Glass War and A Small Town in Germany are bleak, cheerless studies of the Cold War at its coldest, but in their very grimness lies their excellence. Together, they may represent the truest picture in literature of the moral and spiritual wasteland of the international political world of the twentieth century." Le Carre paints the picture Cobb refers to by creating an impossible mission for the spies in the "Department." From the opening of the novel, the characters are doomed for failure, for they are following up on evidence of missile emplacements in East Germany which were placed there by a fellow and friendly spy agency to distract the enemies. The main characters in the book are all seeking some sort of glory through the mission: some to make themselves feel as important as they did during the war, and some to make an initial establishment for themselves. Leclerc, the director of the mission, is proud and selfish. By the conclusion of the novel, he is essentially responsible for two deaths; one (Taylor) an inexperienced agent whom he sent to collect insignificant film, and the other (Leiser), an older agent, whom Leclerc sent to East Germany to investigate and then abandoned when it was evident Leiser would be captured and killed by the Germans. In the selfish actions of Leclerc, Le Carre makes it plain that risking lives for causes which may prove to be hopeless (and, in fact, did in the case of both the Korean and the Vietnam War,) is absurd, selfish, and sad. A central theme of betrayal is expressed through Leclerc's betrayal of Leiser and again with Avery's betrayal of his wife. Upon failing his assigned mission, one character, (Avery,) defines this feverish betrayal, "He looked at Leclerc, then at Haldane. They were his colleagues. Prisoners of silence, the three of them would work side by side, breaking the arid land all four seasons of the year, strangers to each other, needing each other, in a wilderness of abandoned faith" (102). One could make a similar statement about the relationship between the government and the public during the Cold War; they clearly need each other, yet, the government was making decisions which betrayed the desires of the public for which they were working.
Perhaps it is the Cold War as well, which sparked such a high interest in the spy genre in the 1960s. The United States was certainly engaged in its own espionage during the Cold War. During the 1950s, the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent the CIA to Iran and Guatemala in order to prevent their governments from turning pro-communist. In any case, the 1960s proved to be a successful decade for the spy genre in all types of media. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was not the only major espionage novel on the bestseller list in 1964; Ian Fleming's James Bond thriller, You Only Live Twice, accompanied it. Both Fleming and Le Carre appear on the list again the following year (with The Man With the Golden Gun and The Looking Glass War, respectively.) In 1968, Le Carre makes the list again with A Small Town in Germany. As Joseph Maloney points out in his entry on You Only Live Twice, a relatively large number (138) 'spy' movies and television shows were produced in the 1960s, including the television series, Mission: Impossible. What differentiates Le Carre's novels from the stereotypical spy is that his characters are not smooth talking, handsome, and determined, nor is the plot always filled with excitement. Publisher's Weekly describes, "A bitter, bleak, superlatively well-written novel, The Looking Glass War is so devastating in its portrayal of a team of third-rate British agents?that the reader is shocked into revulsion for the whole concept of secret agent." While James Bond may be the more characteristically 'fun' secret agent, Le Carre's novels are higher on the best seller list for both 1964 and 1965. This can perhaps be attributed to Le Carre's unique approach to his genre and his often short, brutal honesty; "[Le Carre] redefines the borders of genre fiction by exploring the dark sides of contemporary life, while giving temporary solutions to the pervasive chaos of moral uncertaintity" (Beene).
Not only did Le Carre have a distinguished approach to his subject, he also had a special connection to it. While not confirmed that Le Carre was an actual spy, he did work for British Intelligence before he became a full time author. Le Carre was also known to be a very private man, often refusing interviews and rarely speaking about his work. With the combination of these two factors, Le Carre portrayed himself as a very mysterious man to the public. In the publicity campaign before the release of The Looking Glass War, the ads all contain a full-page photograph of Le Carre lighting a pipe, somewhat reminiscent of the classic spy Sherlock Holmes. Just as Upton Sinclair immersed himself in the meat packing industry for his novel, The Jungle, and thus thoroughly engaged and convinced his readers of his story, Le Carre intrigues his audience by leading them to believe that his novels provide a window into the true world of espionage. In the words of LynnDianne Beene, "Le Carre wants readers to accept his fictional world as plausible and his judgments about that world's immorality as sound."
While The Looking Glass War did not remain on the bestseller list after the year of its publication, it continues to sell today. One reason for its continuing success would be the release of the movie version in 1970 by Columbia Pictures. Also, John Le Carre continued to produce popular novels into the 1990s generating a new, younger audience for his writing. While the pertinence of the Cold War may fade with time, Le Carre's superb writing style does not. There are many bestsellers, which may never have made the bestseller list if not for the author's previous novel (for example, Joseph Heller's Something Happened) and this may have been the case for The Looking Glass War. The novel had so many other factors going for it though, that this is hard to believe. It addressed serious issues, expressed and agreed with popular opinion and did in a fashion that was popular during the decade in which it was written.
International Move Database (www.imd.com)
The History Chanel (www.historychanel.com)
Beene, LynneDianne. JOhn le Carre. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Reviews: John le Carre. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Cobb, John L. Understanding John le Carre. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Homberger, Eric. John le Carre. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Le Carre, John. The Looking Glass War. London: William Heinemann, 1965.