Call for the Dead by John le Carré
My rating: ★★★★☆
There has been some excellent recent news for fans of John le Carré and his greatest character creation George Smiley: a new novel featuring Smiley will be published in late 2017. This seems like the perfect time then for a review of le Carré’s first book, which was also the first of the Smiley books which long ago appeared to have concluded in 1990 with The Secret Pilgrim.
Call for the Dead, published in 1961, takes place in a London in the midst of the Cold War. The plot sees the intelligence officer George Smiley conduct what seems like a courteous and straight forward security interview with a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, who is then found dead the next day, a suspected suicide, at his suburban home.
Shocked into action by this, as well as his nervous boss, Smiley visits Fennan’s home and is racked with guilt upon seeing his widowed wife who demands an explanation about their interview the previous day. It is at this point that the Fennan’s telephone rings, which Smiley answers assuming it is head office for him, only to discover it is a wake up call from the Foreign Office requested by Samuel Fennan the previous day.
Here, the novel receives it’s name and with it Smiley a purpose. He immediately thinks why a man who was apparently contemplating suicide would request a wake up call the next morning? His suspicions of foul play kick start a murder investigation alongside his trusty companion, Inspector Mendel, from the Metropolitan Police.
Without spoiling the plot, Smiley’s forensic approach to the case, alongside practical support from Inspector Mendel and Peter Guillam, another character to appear multiple times in the le Carré canon, leads to some uncomfortable findings surrounding an East German spy ring operating in London, which then mercilessly attempts to cover it’s tracks to Smiley.
One of the main things which stands out from this novel, written and based in the early ’60s, is how different British society was then. Certain turns of phrase are either out dated and no longer in use or today deemed down right offensive. The Second World War also hangs over this book with an imposing and tragic shadow. Most characters have stories and shared histories from that period, with the history of the conflict providing a central plank of Smiley’s discoveries. Reference to the ‘glory years’ of WW2, where Britain still had (declining) power and ultimately a purpose, are also implicitly present in much of le Carré’s depiction of the British Intelligence Services. They were his employers when he was writing this book, and the depiction is largely implicit but came to influence much of le Carré’s later, more famous work.
What is remarkable is that this was le Carré’s first book and he is still writing as brilliantly as ever in a completely different world in 2017. As mentioned above his new book out this year, which will include Peter Guillam and flashbacks to Smiley, will certainly be a treat and may well hark back to this rather distant history.