My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One of the most important thriller novelists of the 20th century, John le Carré has literally written the book about spy stories. As I found myself interested in reading spy narratives, I decided to begin with him, and his first novel.
I find it fascinating that his first spy novel, Call for the Dead, showcases a tired, cynical spy who wants out of the job. George Smiley is an experienced intelligence officer who’s lived through the Second World War, but who’s not that excited about the job anymore. He’s become tired, cynical and is more or less ready to retire. One morning, he receives a note that an agent, whom he interviewed because of an anonymous denunciation of being a Communist, has committed suicide. Smiley is sent to Fennan’s home as a matter of course, only to suspect that the man has been murdered. After his boss refuses to look into the murder, Smiley quits to solve the crime on his own.
Follows a mystery involving old pupils, theatre, a phone call mystery and classic spy tradecraft. I think that strictly speaking, this isn’t exactly a spy story, but rather a murder mystery involving spies. And yet, the story was satisfying and well-crafted.
Let’s begin with Le Carré’s style. The first thing I noticed was the razor-sharp, no-frills writing that goes straight to the heart of any person, place or action. There are no superfluous words or sentences, nothing but the essential. This makes for a very tight reading experience–sometimes to the point of wondering if it won’t break. It often feels more like a report than a story, and the writing swings uncomfortably between the two.
Indeed, I found myself a bit startled at many points in the novel. The characters are often introduced without much ado, and we are given very little chance to know who they are before they start affecting the story. Therefore, I had often trouble differentiating Mendel from Guillam and figuring out who was who for the minor characters. The point of view also often changed abruptly, making me wonder whose perspective or action we were witnessing at the moment.
The mystery, mysterious as it was, eventually gets solved. The book would have ended well if le Carré had avoided the final report which basically summarizes the entire story in writing that’s even more economical, if that was ever possible. I think this section could easily have been omitted, as the book is already short enough and doesn’t require a final “here’s what happened in the book” chapter.
Despite its faults, though, I found myself rooting for Smiley and his friends. Smiley is weirdly sympathetic for being so cold and cynical. But maybe that’s part of being a spy: you can’t let yourself have feelings or be hopeful, as you’ve seen the worst of human guile and evil. Murder, blackmail and manipulation are matters of course for fictional spies; how can one remain happy and hopeful in such an environment?
Thematically, the book explores the breakdown of traditional British society after the Second World War. Characters live in neighbourhoods that they “shouldn’t” live in; a Jewish man works in the Foreign Office, a traditionally very British and classist environment; the threat of communism is ever-present as East German spies, trained by the British, start popping up everywhere; Smiley and his friends keep this old-style “club” maintained by their old Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) landlady. It’s not as obvious as in second book, but you can see a hint of interest in this topic in this first book.
This book matters because it’s the first from one of the major writers of the second half of the 20th century. Call for the Dead gives us a glimpse of the talent and abilities of an up-and-coming thriller writer, whom everyone will want to emulate within a few years. I am definitely looking forward to the next novel!