Books: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Looking Glass War

I've been making my way through John le Carré's George Smiley novels. Not a whole lot of George Smiley in these past two; he's sort of a peripheral figure in them, a contact person for other, newer characters. I suppose it can be difficult to build too much around George himself, since he's so quiet and staid. He's a thinking man's hero, so if one is looking for action, one must turn to someone else. Which is what le Carré did in these two books.

They aren't bad. Cold is better than Looking, but they both go along about the same way. Each novel begins with a situation wherein the reader is immediately prompted to think, This can't end well. And it doesn't. After all, an inciting incident is required, particularly in spy fiction.

But, in fact, both novels continue with the this-can't-end-well feeling. A lot of work, a lot of risk, and the question of whether it will pay off—these are the shared themes between the two. The idea appears to be that there are no winners in the game of international espionage; it is a chess game that never ends because pieces removed from the board can always be replaced by new pawns.

And yet despite the lack of happy endings, the books are not unsatisfying. There are places where they become pedantic and long-winded, though I can also admire le Carré's detail. But even so, they are good, solid reads. Perfect for, say, a plane or train trip. And their chilly feel makes them right for fall and winter. (I don't know if you feel books have a season, but I certainly do.)

After the fact one is inclined to think the books could end no other way than as they do, and that is their one large fault: a sort of predestination is embedded in the lives of the characters le Carré creates. They seem to have no other options, no ability to make better choices. There is no moment when a reader might say, "If only," because what happens seems meant to happen; like a long, straight road across open country, there are no turns. Just a dead end. The characters seem to know it, and the reader does too, but the journey pulls them all along—the watched and the watchers—together to the end.