Originally published in 1961
George Smiley #1
Followed by A Murder of Quality
George Smiley is no one’s idea of a spy—which is perhaps why he’s such a natural. But Smiley apparently made a mistake. After a routine security interview, he concluded that the affable Samuel Fennan had nothing to hide. Why, then, did the man from the Foreign Office shoot himself in the head only hours later? Or did he?
The heart-stopping tale of intrigue that launched both novelist and spy, Call for the Dead is an essential introduction to le Carré’s chillingly amoral universe.
He’s dead. Killed himself at 10.30 this evening. Left a letter to the Foreign Secretary. The police rang one of his secretaries and got permission to open the letter. Then they told us. There’s going to be an inquiry.
Last week I read a mystery novel by mistake.
The circumstances were that I found myself for once quite a way ahead of schedule (that wouldn’t last) and so I decided that I would take advantage of the opportunity to read something I had no intention of reviewing on the blog. I took a quick look at my shelves and picked out the very first book from my “everything else” pile, not even bothering to read the blurb.
The book, Call for the Dead, was the novel that introduced readers to George Smiley, the rather nondescript, desk-bound spy who is le Carré’s best known creation. I had picked this up some years ago around the time that the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie came out but never actually got around to it (nor, come to that, the movie). When I returned to it I expected an espionage story but it took just a couple of pages for me to realize my mistake as the book almost immediately presents Smiley with a suspicious death to investigate.
Call for the Dead begins with Smiley being contacted by his superior within the service to ask for details about a routine security interview he had conducted the day before. The reason is that the subject, Samuel Fennan, had committed suicide just a few hours after the meeting and left a note saying that he had been unable to take the pressure of the investigation. This note had gone to the ministerial level leading to some heavy pressure on the department and a desire for some answers.
Smiley expresses that he is baffled. The interview was, he assures him, a completely routine affair in response to an anonymous accusation that Fennan had dabbled in extreme politics at university. He insists that the conversation had been genial and points out that he had made it quite clear that the matter was a formality and that he had indicated that the matter was closed and that he would be exonerated in his report. What, he wonders, could have changed in just a few hours to drive the man to take his own life?
This is a fascinating starting point for the story as the author does an excellent job of exploring the situation logically, pointing out the inconsistencies and oddities of the situation as Smiley tries to think things through. Before long he is interviewing the dead man’s widow and finds that rather than making things clearer, the situation seems more confused than ever.
While Smiley tries to reconcile the suicide with his own observations, the reader will likely be somewhat ahead of the sleuth in these early chapters. Rather than feeling redundant however, le Carré uses this portion of the book to introduce us to Smiley and the nature of the work he does, giving us a better understanding of the man and the methods he will employ in this story. By the time he finds a decisive clue pointing at murder we have a good grasp of the man, enabling the reader to focus on some of the more curious details of the case.
There is one clue in particular, referenced in the novel’s title, that proves particularly helpful in steering the investigation away from suicide and toward murder. The significance of the clue is quite immediately apparent and yet it takes time to understand what implications we should draw from it and to begin to assemble a picture of the crime and the reasons for it.
Le Carré operates with a relatively small cast of characters which does rather limit the possible answers as to whodunit. I think though that even if the reader suspects the correct person there is still plenty that needs to be explained to fully understand what had happened and why. Discovering the answers to those questions is quite rewarding and I think the author paced the revelations of information well enough to allow the reader to feel that there is a gradual movement toward learning the truth. Even though I had guessed the killer, the motive and the identity of the letter writer some chapters before the truth is revealed, I still found this to be a really compelling read and I loved seeing exactly how everything would come together.
I really enjoyed the process of getting to know Smiley who, while not a particularly flashy character, struck me as good company. While I was new to the books, I was at least familiar with the concept of Smiley who has long been described to me as sort of the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. Smiley is rather dry and academic, rarely ventures out into the field and has no romantic encounters at all (he is, we learn, separated from his wife but given she does not directly appear here I do not feel she counts, at least in the context of this story). In spite of those traits though I find his sincerity and cool, logical thinking to be quite attractive and enjoyed reading how he comes to piece the whole matter together.
That explanation, as I indicated earlier, did not particularly surprise me but it did satisfy me. It hinges on some very careful, solid observations that I think helped make sense of the connections. For those who are less interested in the mystery than in the espionage, there is plenty of that here too with the author carefully laying out the meaning of what is being done and how characters’ actions may be influenced by or impact forces from mainland Europe.
It unfolds at a pretty smooth and solid pace, making it a relatively easy read, and it even incorporates a little action toward the end which is written well and easy to visualize. As for the novel’s espionage content, I found it to be quite fascinating and I appreciated the emphasis on attempting to realistically show details of how some things are worked and even, in a memorable chapter describing Smiley’s own work in the field during the thirties, what it would feel like to be on assignment. The result is a fascinating book that I found to be quite compelling and which I am glad I made the time to read. Whether read as a mystery or spy thriller, I felt Call for the Dead was a superb read and I am looking forward to making time to read the next now which I understand is also primarily a detective story.
The Verdict: This spy thriller also offers a pretty compelling and well-clued mystery.
3 thoughts on “Call for the Dead by John le Carré”
Glad you liked this. The next one (A Murder of Quality) is a pure detective story with no espionage elements at all. I definitely recommend reading Tinker, Tailor before watching the film, as I think a good deal of the plot is lost in the latter. The Alec Guinness TV series is a proper old school adaptation with virtually all the dialogue lifted straight from the book.
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Thanks for the advice John. I will certainly plan to read these rather than watch them for just that reason.