Call for the Dead by John Le Carré9 September 2008
I went on a bit of an espionage kick a few weeks ago, ploughing through several spy novels that I’d been meaning to read for some time now. Now that I’ve finished the lot, it’s time to start posting the reviews.
Call for the Dead by John Le Carré
When an anonymous typewritten letter accuses Samuel Fennan, a civil servant in the Foreign Office, of being a Communist Party member during his time at Oxford, intelligence officer George Smiley is sent to interview Fennan and review his files for any trace of problems in his professional and personal history. Everything appears to be in order, the interview goes well, and Smiley assures Fennan that there is nothing to worry about. Not two days later, however, Fennan is found dead on the floor of his suburban Surrey home, shot through the head. The immediate impression is that Fennan has taken his own life, since the gun was found beneath his body and he had left behind a suicide note which claimed that he was convinced his career was ruined. Elsa, Fennan’s wife, coldly informs George Smiley that her husband had been in a state of near nervous collapse ever since the interview, and that she had found his body lying on the hall floor when she returned from an evening out. Smiley is prepared to accept this explanation and consider the sad matter closed, but when the Fennans’ telephone rings and he answers it, the telephone exchange operator cheerfully informs him that Fennan had requested a call for 8.30 AM that very day. This peculiar telephone call, and a handful of other inexplicable facts — an cup of cocoa left undrunk, a music case left behind in a local theatre — lead Smiley to investigate Fennan’s death more carefully. As he uncovers more inconsistencies, irregularities, and outright lies, Smiley begins to piece together a story that is as much a part of his own past as it is Fennan’s, and comes face to face with a group of individuals who are more than willing to kill again to protect the secrets they have worked so hard to acquire.
Call for the Dead was John Le Carré’s first foray into the spy fiction that would make his name as an author, and the first book to introduce the weary but determined George Smiley and the ‘Circus’, Le Carré’s name for the British intelligence service. In some ways, it is more of a noir-ish detective story than a spy novel, for the spying is often rather peripheral to the plot and at times it reads more like a classic British police procedural than an example of the espionage-based genre. The George Smiley of Call for the Dead is not quite the same George Smiley who stars in Le Carré’s well-known trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People); this Smiley is very much a prototype, slightly less in control of his emotions and slightly more prone to morose musings over the state of his failed marriage to the beautiful but faithless Lady Ann Sercomb. Le Carré would even retcon Smiley’s past for the later books, changing the date of his initial employment with the Circus to prevent his hero from being too old for the action that those books required. As a first draft, though, it provides a thorough introduction to Smiley’s history, and allows Smiley to be a little more active than we see him in the later books — this Smiley is able to survive a beating and still feel confident in his ability to tackle a man who is armed and unquestionably dangerous.
Although Call for the Dead is Le Carré’s first book, it may not be the best book to read as an introduction to the Le Carré world of espionage fiction. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the classic George Smiley book, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Perfect Spy are two of the most well-written of his classic works. Yet Call for the Dead has a short, tight plot that keeps the suspense quite high throughout, a fairly satisfying mystery to follow, and several interesting characters (including one of the few Le Carré female characters who actually seems capable of thinking about something other than sex). The rain-soaked, fog-shrouded London of the early 1960s makes a perfect setting for the story, lending the right atmosphere of gloom, foreboding, and slow but inevitable decay that so often provides the backdrop for the works of one of the foremost authors of espionage fiction.