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Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Call for the Dead (George Smiley, #1)Call for the Dead by John le Carré

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!

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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (review)

I did not expect to like this book that much. I started it months ago only to abandon it to Game of Thrones; it’s only when I picked it up again and gave it the attention it deserved that I got hooked.

Let’s not shirk the reality: Cryptonomicon is a big sprawling thing of a book. It has three main characters and a flurry of minor ones which become hard to keep track of at first. But eventually, every piece of the puzzle moves in place and everything makes sense.

This is the ultimate geek novel. It’s about people who probably weren’t very popular in high school but whose smarts put them ahead of the game as soon as appearances lose their importance. It’s also about your typical WWII hero… or maybe not that typical.

Despite its length, the book is full of action. Not a chapter goes on without some major plot point happening. This is one thing I appreciated about this book: it keeps you on your toes. I always wanted to read on to know what was going to happen. I found Stephenson’s peculiar mix of fate and pure chance quite attractive. I don’t especially enjoy stories where everything is fated; for example, the seemingly meaningless “Lavender Rose Waterhouse” (at least meaningless to those who wrote it) begins a quest that has a lot in common with destiny, and yet isn’t quite fate.

To be honest, I found Randy, the main character, a bit infuriating. He’s smart, yes, but he just coasts along the story for a very, very long time, letting himself be lead around by Avi and the Shaftoes. It’s only when he finally decides to act that his character really shows. And that’s very late in a very big book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It brought me back to my love of everything nerdy and geeky. But just a warning: only pick it up if you have a lot of time on your hands or a lot of reading stamina. Because this isn’t the overnight reading kind.

 

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