Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré

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Call For the Dead, published in 1961, was both John le Carré’s first novel, and the world’s introduction to the inimitable George Smiley, who returns later this year in A Legacy of Spies. Paced with  le Carré’s trademark assuredness, it’s less an espionage novel and more of a murder mystery, whose main players happen to work for British Intelligence, with a plot that revolves around East German spies inside Great Britain.

Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Certain erroneous details, however, identified by Smiley’s keen eye, bring Fennan’s fate into question. With  Inspector Mendel in tow, Smiley unravels a clandestine spy ring, the members of which will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.

Call For the Dead is perhaps John le Carré’s simplest story in terms of scope, but it still manages to highlight the inherent complexities of the life of a spy. Smiley is one of the unlikeliest heroes in espionage fiction, described here as a somewhat short and fat man, but it’s his tenacity and intelligence that shines through, as always. It’s no wonder le Carré decided to continue relaying the man’s adventures to his burgeoning readership. Having said that, the novel hasn’t aged especially well, and modern audiences might struggle with this one. Most readers will accept the now-outdated technology of the time, of course; that’s not the issue. It’s the structure of the book itself — an opening chapter, for example, that is nothing more than a history of George Smiley (it’s actually titled A Brief History of George Smiley!) — that occasionally grinds and clunks. Also, Call For the Dead ends with a summation of the core plot points, penned by Smiley, which is quaint, but something contemporary writers wouldn’t get away with so plainly. Le Carré’s thrillers are now celebrated for their nuance, and in that regard, Call For the Dead definitely has a “first book” vibe.

Nonetheless, re-reading Call For the Dead was a worthy exercise, reminding me of how much more elaborate and nuanced Le Carré’s novels later became. It will be interesting comparing this with A Legacy of Spies, surely the final Smiley thriller, and charting the immeasurable advancements of the world’s greatest writer of espionage fiction.

ISBN: 9780141198286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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