‘Call For The Dead’, published in 1961, was John le Carré’s debut novel. He wrote it while posted to the British Embassy in Berlin, working for the British Secret Service.
This a short novel (167 pages) but it does a very effective job of introducing you to the nuanced world of George Smiley, British spy, while solving a mystery around the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office colleague.
George Smiley is a spy who couldn’t be further from the James Bond 007 image. Smiley is short, fat, expensively but badly dressed, bespectacled and in late middle age. Recruited out of University, he created and ran spy networks in Germany before and during the Second World War. When we meet him, he’s desk-bound and seen as too old for field work. Le Carré does a good job of suggesting, without ever stating, that Smilely is seen as being too old-fashioned for post-war spy work, where political savvy is valued more highly than operational effectiveness. We soon see that Smilely has a disturbing habit of digging for answers long after his masters have found the answer they were looking for.
Even in this first book, John le Carré’s writing is captivating. His storytelling is intelligent, articulate and accessible. He builds Smiley’s character with deft strokes that display Smiley’s trade craft, his class and most of all, his dogged determination to make sense of what he’s seeing even when it goes against his own best interest.
As with the spies in Le Carré’s later works, Smiley is not a blindly-loyal patriot, convinced that the British are always right. He sees the compromises and the evasions of the politicians and recognises that he has more in common with his opponents that he does with his masters. The content of the story, which involves spies from the GDR, would have been mildly controversial in 1961, when Britain didn’t recognise the GDR, the Berlin wall was being built and Britain still had troops on the ground.
There is a simple but satisfying mystery at the centre of the novel although I think its main purpose was to introduce us to how George Smilely thinks.
There were a couple of things that marked this out as a debut novel for me. I found the start of the novel a little florid, perhaps trying too hard for a high-flown style but that settled down after a couple of chapters. I thought the inclusion of Smiley’s report towards the end of novel as a way of explaining what had been going on was a little clumsy. Despite those things, this was an engaging and memorable read.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Call For The Dead’. Michael Jayston’s narration captures the tone of the text perfectly. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.