Le Carré, John. Call for the Dead.

NY: Walker, 1961.

I read a great deal, both classic literature and recent novels, and have done for half a century. In all that time, I have accrued a list of favorite characters, from Elizabeth Summerson and Dorothea Brooke to Lazarus Long and Harry Flashman. And George Smiley, the short, fat, nearsighted genius of the Secret Intelligence Service during the Cold War, is very near the top of that list.

I’ve reread the “Karla” trilogy half a dozen times over the years. This book was, in fact, both Le Carré’s first published piece of fiction and Smiley’s introduction to the world. Like A Murder of Quality, published a year later, this is not a long book — almost a novella rather than a novel — and also, like that other one, it’s both a murder mystery and a spy story. Smiley was recruited for Intelligence in 1928, spent much of the ’30s in Nazi Germany, recruiting agents himself, and passed the war years traveling between Sweden and Switzerland, with frequent detours into Germany. Now it’s fifteen years since the end of the war and Smiley is looking at middle age and probable retirement. He doesn’t much care, either, because the Service has become bureaucratized beyond recognition. He’s spending his time now doing interviews with government employees in sensitive positions about whom there is doubt, or who have been anonymously denounced. So George’s best days (you really couldn’t call them “great days”) are definitely behind him. Then a mid-level Foreign Office official whom he had interviewed the day before and had given a clean bill of health — and had told him so, too, so he wouldn’t worry needlessly — apparently commits suicide in despondency. Smiley is flabbergasted. And he has to go down and talk to the widow and tidy things up for his boss. But there are just too many things wrong, circumstances unexplained, items out of place, and he gradually becomes convinced it was murder, not suicide. But why? That’s the set-up and it will draw you right into the story as only Le Carré can. The plot is complicated but not too much so. The author always gives full attention to his supporting characters, so Peter Guillam (his first appearance, too) and the newly retired Inspector Mendel are just as three-dimensional as Smiley himself. Their mental processes are fascinating to observe as they sort things out and the often elliptical dialogue is perfect. Finally, a number of themes are introduced which will later become familiar to Smiley fans, including his rather strange, rather hopeless relationship with Ann. Frankly, there just aren’t enough books featuring George Smiley and his colleagues. I know the Cold War is long over and Le Carré has gone on to other themes, but I sincerely wish he would go back and write more about George’s adventures in the three decades before the setting of this book.

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Published in: on 21 January 2012 at 8:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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