Call for the Dead, John Le Carre

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Before the death of author John Le Carre, I'd already promised myself a re-run through the George Smiley series, for two reasons. I'd listened to AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD last year and been absolutely taken with the style of narration from the author himself; then late one night we'd stumbled upon a stream of the 1965 movie of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, having already been very pleased to find the same of Sir Alec Guinness in the TV series TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Distinctly remember Clive James being somewhat underwhelmed by the same - a quote from his original review “The first instalment fully lived up to the standard set by the original novel. Though not quite as incomprehensible, it was equally turgid.”

There's always been something slightly captivating, and worrying about the George Smiley series although it has dawned on me that you have to approach it with the same sardonic, dry tone that Le Carre used in his narration mentioned above; but most importantly, you have to remember that this is probably more akin to spycraft than all the bang bang shoot 'em up daring doing of the average spy thriller written. Long periods of introspection, interrupted by sporadic bits of quietly dangerous shadow boxing, and a lot of wondering what the hell is happening and why you just couldn't have gone out and got a real job thinking. Which is part of what makes, upon reflection, the Smiley series so darn clever. It can be drawn out and it can equally be tense and rapidfire, it's often times almost incomprehensible, and it's quietly, menacingly, dangerous. It's playing with minds and futures. It's destroying lives, not always cavalierly, sometimes so matter-of-factly that it's more frightening as a result.

The core of CALL FOR THE DEAD is exactly that, a routine security check, nothing out of the ordinary as far as George Smiley is concerned, leading to a seemingly blameless civil servant killing himself. It's the attempt on the part of one of Smiley's overlords to blame him for the death that triggers his investigation, his meeting with the widow of Samuel Fennan, onto the connection with East German intelligence.

This is Le Carre's first book, and it set the tone and style for everything that was to come, particularly the George Smiley series, tenacious, controlled central characters who quietly go about their dangerous, deadly work with commitment and conviction. Run it in your head in a low-key, sardonic manner and the stylings make sense, the plots are most definitely convoluted and frequently incomprehensible, but for this reader that really kind of works.


Year of Publication
Book Number (in series)

After a routine security check by George Smiley, civil servant Samuel Fennan apparently kills himself. When Smiley finds Circus head Maston is trying to blame him for the man's death, he begins his own investigation, meeting with Fennan's widow to find out what could have led him to such desperation. But on the very day that Smiley is ordered off the enquiry he receives an urgent letter from the dead man. Do the East Germans - and their agents - know more about this man's death than the Circus previously imagined?

Le Carré's first book, Call for the Dead, introduced the tenacious and retiring George Smiley in a gripping tale of espionage and deceit.

Review Call for the Dead, John Le Carre
Karen Chisholm
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Review Call For The Dead, John le Carre
Gordon Duncan
Sunday, November 18, 2018

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