Call For The Dead, John le Carre
Over the summer, along with reviewing new novels, I’m also planning to review some of my favourites starting with John Le Carre’s Call For The Dead. Although Le Carre is arguably the greatest spy novelist of all time his first two novels, Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, fit more closely within the crime/mystery genre. It was only after the release of Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, that he became known as a writer of espionage novels.
Call For The Dead was released in the same year as Thunderball, the tenth James Bond, and it’s hard to imagine two more opposite characters than James Bond and George Smiley. One an all action figure, the other, in Le Carre’s unflattering opening description of George Smiley’s wedding, a bullfrog who had ‘waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince’. Despite this less than flattering introduction, George Smiley has not only endured, he’s become one of the greatest literary characters of all time.
After an introductory first chapter the story begins in earnest in chapter two with George Smiley being summoned to the Cambridge Circus at 2am to explain why Samuel Arthur Fennan, a career civil servant whom Smiley had interviewed a few days earlier, had committed suicide. Smiley has no explanation, other than the fact that Fennan’s suicide note doesn’t tally with his recollection of the meeting, and he is sent to Fennan’s home in Surrey to investigate. Smiley very quickly senses something is wrong and after being ordered to not investigate any further, he resigns and continues the investigation privately. Joining Smiley in his investigation are two familiar characters, Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, in whom he both trusts and you can see the beginnings of the loyalty he has towards both of them. I’m a huge fan of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spytelevision series and one of the few criticisms I have of it is that the character of Mendel is condensed. In Call For The Deadyou learn more of his past and why he’s someone who Smiley would trust.
At 160 pages Call For The Dead is probably the shortest of all the John Le Carre novels, it is still however an interesting read for anyone who likes a mystery novel in which the brain is more important than brawn or someone who just wants to know where it all began for George Smiley and John Le Carre.
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.