Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Call for the Dead: Review

On the face of it John le Carré's Call for the Dead is so not my kind of book. I'm not attracted to espionage novels as a rule. The descriptions of George Smiley

Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that 'Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester'. And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.

don't exactly inspire great confidence or admiration in those of us whose primary connection with British espionage novels revolves around a man whose name is "Bond.  James Bond." Do spies actually waddle? [And, if they do, shouldn't they be described as ducks and not toads? But I digress....]

On the other hand, this is some book. It introduces le Carré's most famous character, the quite ugly, unfashionable Smiley. Smiley is an intelligence officer who works for "the Circus," Britain's overseas intelligence agency. He had been quite good during World War II, but since the war ended he has fallen a bit from grace and works in a somewhat menial job which includes doing security clearance on civil servants. He is sent on a routine interview to check out an anonymous tip on one Samuel Fennan. Smiley thinks it just "busy work" and reassures the man that the agency has no quarrel with him and that there will be no repercussions.

He is shocked, therefore, to be told the next day that Fennan has apparently committed suicide. When Maston, Smiley's talentless boss (a civil-service bureaucrat who is the current head of service),  sends him to do a quick investigation--purely to tidy the file and mark it closed, Smiley finds the situation is not as simple as Maston would like. There's the matter of the "wake-up" call arranged by Fennan, the lies Fennan's wife tells, and the letter Smiley receives from the dead man. Smiley quickly decides that Fennan has been murdered and resigns from the service when Maston orders him to drop the investigation. With the help of a retired policeman and one of his former colleagues, Smiley finds evidence of East German spies at work....and an old friend at the bottom of it all. But someone is determined to take Smiley out of the game for good. The first try misfires....will Smiley be so lucky after that?

After a beginning that had me wondering if I wanted to finish the book, le Carré reeled me in with his descriptive story-telling. A "toad"-like man may not have been my ideal spy when I began, but I was completely convinced of his abilities and his reality by the end. The picture of post-war Britain that le Carré paints is brilliantly rendered--I looked up from my book in the final chapters fully expecting to see the fog swirling round me and to hear the river traffic below the bridge. The story itself reads less like a spy-thriller to me than a more traditional mystery. Smiley is following up clues in the best Scotland Yard fashion. I absolutely will be on the look-out for copies of the other Smiley books.  ★★


Anonymous said...

Actually that description for Smiley got me really interested! I have a soft spot for plain characters. :) Great review.

fredamans said...

I love those kind of books that you start out thinking you won't enjoy or may not even finish, but then you end up loving it. That takes talent as a writer. Great review!

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of this one - and so glad you liked it! Really is a murder mystery dissguised as a spy story, isn't it? What is interesting is to then go and read SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and realise that it is, in fact, a direct sequel to this one and to a surprising degree knowledge of this one makes a huge difference to the other.

Debbie Rodgers said...

I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in high school, although it was out of my comfort zone. I remember being "blown away" by the ending, and thinking that I must read more of this guy. Forty-five years later, I have several of his books on my shelves, but have never read another one. I guess it's time to change that. ;-)

Gram said...

I love all the Smiley books.