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Though it introduces one of the favorite characters in spy/crime literature, MI-6 operative George Smiley, and inspired an award-winning film version, Call for the Dead and its immediate follow-up, A Murder of Quality, are rather under-read and perhaps even unknown to many fans of the later Karla trilogy and the famous film and tv adaptations featuring Smiley. This is particularly unfortunate because Le Carre’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold reads completely differently once you understand Smiley’s motivations in that scheme.

It is also well worthwhile seeing how Le Carre presents George for the first time: When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn't left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew 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..

Was he rich or poor, peasant or priest? Where had she got him from? The incongruity of the match was emphasized by Lady Ann's undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conver­sation. And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard's van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday's news..

When Lady Ann followed her star to Cuba, she gave some thought to Smiley. With grudging admiration she admitted to herself that if there were an only man in her life, Smiley would be he. She was gratified in retrospect that she had demonstrated this by holy matrimony. Of course, Karla would use this relationship to Soviet advantage, which makes Smiley’s tolerance of Ann’s serial betrayals all the more annoying, but we at least get to see that there is the kernel of a real relationship there. It is also apparent that Smiley is intended as a kind of rumpled Hercule Poirot, as befits the first two appearances where he is as much an ersatz private detective as a spy.

The action of the novel begins after Smiley has vetted a civil servant who is accused of being a crypto-communist:
"Bad show, Smiley," said Maston. "That chap Sam Fennan you were asked to security check last week. He's committed suicide. There's got to be an enquiry, but don't rock the boat. We can't have a word of this leaked to the Press."

He's showing too much cuff, Smiley observed as Maston left the room. His deliberations were interrupted by Peter Guillam. "What did you make of Fennan?"

"A decent cove. A Jew obviously, but reasonable nonetheless. Whoever denounced him was right: he had been a member of the Party in the 30s, but he's one of us now. I as good as told him there was nothing to worry about over one of those new-fangled espresso thingies that cost a shilling. So his suicide is very rum."
(The casual anti-Semitism there jars,m but is not out of character for Le Carre.) Maston is the prototypical amoral and ambitious bureaucrat of the series and wants to pin the scandal on Smiley, whose career is just as much at a dead end as his marriage. But, as Smiley tells Guillam, his protege in the books, the suicide makes no sense and, given his own inquisitive nature and fascination with peoples’ psychology, our toad welcomes the opportunity to dig in.

The title of the novel comes from an incident that occurs when Smiley goes to interview Fennan’s widow, Elsa. The dead man receives a wake-up call. Odd, eh?

Having picked up the scent, Smiley recruits a soon-to-retire Inspector Mendel of the Metropolitan police and Guillam to help him investigate what he now senses to have been a murder and, eventually, to set a trap for the suspects. It becomes apparent that they have stumbled into an East German intelligence operation that just happens to be master-minded by one of the agents Smiley recruited when he was planted in Germany as a professor before the war. Dieter Fry was not just the best of them, but a man Smiley genuinely loved. Unfortunately his “idealism” led him over to the other side after the war and now the two must face off, regardless of past friendship. Fry is assisted by a brute of a man, Hans-Dieter Mundt, SPOILER ALERT: Ultimately, Smiley more-or-less accidentally kills Frey and Mundt escapes. This sets up In from the Cold , in which it is, otherwise, unclear why George is so driven to destroy Mundt and why risking the life of Alec Leamas is so well-justified.

All in all, it’s a good brisk mystery that really does set up the rest of Smiley’s career and should be read prior to the rest of the series. The film and a readily available BBC radio adaptation are also worthwhile.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

John Le Carré (2 books reviewed)
John Le Carré Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John LeCarre
-VIDEO INTERVIEW: : John Le Carré, invité de Bernard Pivot dans "Apostrophes" (Apostrophes | Antenne 2, 24/11/1989)
    -PODCAST: Spies, Sex, and John le Carré: The writer helped define the modern spy thriller with his cynical, expertly observed stories of espionage. How will new revelations about his private life complicate his legacy? (Critics at Large: With Vinson Cunningham, Naomi Fry, and Alexandra Schwartz, October 12, 2023, The New Yorker)
-REVIEW ESSAY: 60 YEARS OF 'THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD': Paul Vidich and Joseph Kanon investigate the legacy of John le Carré's groundbreaking novel. (PAUL VIDICH, 12/01/23, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: Florence Pugh called John le Carré an “old f*cking fart,” which… inspired him? (Jonny Diamond, January 13, 2023, LitHub)
    -PROFILE: The spy who loved me: Suleika Dawson’s account of her affair with novelist John le Carré has caused controversy. But she is unrepentant (Brice Stratford, December 30, 2022, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: How Smiley’s people conquered Britain (David Patrikarakos, Oct. 9th, 2022, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: Keep calm and le Carré on: His pessimism about Britain proved untrue — and its own kind of comforting fantasy (Simon Evans, 4/08/22, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: John le Carré meets Rex Stout (Jeff, OCTOBER 19, 2020, SpyWrite)
    -INTERVIEW: JOHN LE CARRÉ AND THE MOST INTERESTING AUTHOR INTERVIEW YOU WILL EVER SEE: In 1965, John le Carré was a breakout author with a semi-secretive past and some really complex thoughts about espionage. (DWYER MURPHY, 12/10/20, Crime Reads)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with John Le Carre (Terry Gross, Fresh Air)
    -ARCHIVES: John Le Carre (The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: IN PRAISE OF READING LE CARRÉ'S ENTIRE OEUVRE IN ORDER: Ben Winters on finishing a project he never wanted to end (BEN H. WINTERS, 3/08/24, CrimeReads)
-OBIT: John le Carré obituary: George Smiley’s creator elevated the spy novel to high art: Many critics considered his cold-war thrillers and other books literature of the first rank (Sarah Lyall, 12/14/20, NY Times)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, the spy who became the preeminent espionage novelist, dies at 89,/a> (SCOTT MARTELLE, DEC. 13, 2020, LA Times)
-OBIT: John le Carré (1931-2020) (Vannessa Cronin, December 14, 2020, Amazon Book Review)
    -ESSAY: John le Carré: a man who rose through the English class system as it was collapsing: John le Carré’s voice of old-fashioned English authority was one acquired through merit and bearing rather than birth (James Snell, 12/15/20, The Critic)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré’s Novels Weren’t Just Spy Thrillers — They Were High Literature (PACO IGNACIO TAIBO II, December 2021, Jacobin)
    -ESSAY: What le Carré’s people really think of Britain (John Lloyd, 12/17/20, CapX)
    -ESSAY: The Secrets John Le Carré Revealed: The Cold War is over, but we’re still living in Le Carré’s world (Brian Phillips Dec 17, 2020, The Ringer)
-OBIT: John le Carré, Novelist of Espionage and Geopolitics, Dead at 89: He reimagined what the spy novel could do (TOBIAS CARROLL, 12/14/20, Inside Hook)
    -OBIT: John le Carre: master of spy thriller who became moral voice (JITENDRA JOSHI WITH RICHARD INGHAM, 12/14/20, AFP)
    -OBIT: John le Carre, author of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', dies aged 89 (Guy Faulconbridge, 12/13/20, Reuters)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, Master Spy Novelist Embraced by Hollywood, Dies at 89 (Chris Morris, 12/13/20, Variety)
    -OBIT: John le Carre: The writer who opened a window on a secret world: Celebrated spy novelist, who has died aged 89, wrote of the secrecy, betrayal and treachery of the espionage world with an authority of a man who had lived in it (Press Association, 12/14/20)
    -OBIT: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy author John le Carré has died, aged 89: The literary giant's spy novels were perfect stories for film and TV adaptations. (Patrick McLennan, 14th December 2020, Radio Times)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dies aged 89 : Thriller writer most famous for stories of complex cold war intrigue began his career as a real-life spy in postwar Europe (Richard Lea and Sian Cain, 13 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, legendary spy novelist, has died at 89. (Emily Temple, December 14, 2020, Lit Hub)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré was a 21st century writer: On his death, the establishment is patronising England's great novelist as a Cold War figure, rather than confonting why he hated them (Anthony Barnett, 14 December 2020, openDemocracy)
    -TRIBUTE: Farewell John le Carré, one of modern literature’s most substantial talents: The respected author of classic espionage novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has died at the age of 89. Martin Chilton pays tribute to his exquisite, pioneering talent (Martin Chilton, 12/14/20, Independent)
    -ESSAY: The don of disillusionment: John le Carré on film: The paranoia and cynicism of Carol Reed’s The Third Man fired Le Carré’s imagination, while Tomas Alfredson updated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the Iraq war era (Peter Bradshaw, 14 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: The unrivaled John le Carré (Matthew Walther, 12/14/20, The Week)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré’s Cold War: His masterful spy novels revealed a post-imperial Britain struggling to find its place in the world (ROB KILLICK, 14th December 2020, spiked)
    -AUDIO REMEMBRANCE: 'He Makes Us Love George Smiley:' Robert Harris On The Legacy Of John Le Carré (Mary Louise Kelly, 12/14/20, NPR All Things Considered)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré Knew England’s Secrets: He revealed more about the country’s ruling class than any political writer of his era. (TOM MCTAGUE, 12/14/20, The Atlantic)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré Missed Nothing (Anthony Lane, 12/14/20, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Blinding Clarity of John Le Carré: His novels of imperial decline speak to a world that has remained at war since his youth. (Siddhartha Deb, 12/17/20, The Nation)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré didn't invent the spy novel – he joined a tradition and made it new again(William Boyd, 18 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: The Secret Life: John le Carré: In the end, one suspects, John le Carré remained an enigma even to himself (JASON COWLEY, 2015, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: From cold warrior to Tory radical (PETER LOVE, May 2012, Inside Story)
    -ESSAY: TINKER, TAILOR SOLDIER, SPY AND THE GREATEST OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY EVER FILMED: It's just like your old office holiday parties except everyone's a spy, everyone's cheating, and a new world order is at stake (DWYER MURPHY, 12/18/20, Crime Reads)
    -REVIEW: of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre (NY Times, 1974)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview by John Le Carre (Philip Hensher , )
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (Adam Rosenheim, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (David O. Stewart, Washington Independent Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Robert Potts, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of A Private Spy (CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN, BookForum)
    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Jeffery Meyers, The Article)
    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Jennifer Wilson, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of A Private Spy (Peter Hitchens, The Lamp)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre (Michael Saler, TLS)

Book-related and General Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Call for the Dead
    -ENTRY: Call for the Dead (Encyclopaedia Brittanica)
    -WIKIPEDIA: THe Deadly Affair
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Te Deadly Affair (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Le Carre
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Sidney Lumet
    -EXCERPT: A Brief History of George Smiley by John Le Carré (The first appearance of John Le Carré's wily grey eminence: the first chapter of the first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead)
    -RADIO PLAY: Call For The Dead (BBC)
    -RADIO PLAY: A Murder of Quality (BBC)
    -PODCAST: THE LE CARRÉ CAST: A podcast on the world of John le Carré
    -PODCAST: Call for the Dead by John le Carré Explored Part 1 (The Le Carre Cast)
    -PODCAST: Call for the Dead by John le Carré Explored Part 2 (The Le Carre Cast)
    -QUOTES: 30 Best Call For The Dead Quotes (Bookey)
    -ESSAY: Which John le Carre book to read first? A Beginners Guide to John le Carré. (SHANE WHALEY, 6/09/22, Spybary)
    -ESSAY: The Essential John le Carré (Sam Adler-Bell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead by John Le Carre (John Crace, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Double OO Section)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Terry Potter, Letterpress Project)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (George P. Wood)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (My Reader’s Block)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Charly Brady, CB Says)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Tipping My Fedora)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Bitter Tea & Mystery)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (The Reading Bug)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Pining for the West)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Nick Jones, Existential Ennui)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (The Nature of Things)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Crime Fiction Lover)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (A Writer’s Notebook)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (The Book Bag)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (LouLou Reads)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Doc’s Books)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (Mike Finn’s Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (George Cochrane, Bookstalling)
    -REVIEW: of Cal for the Dead (Richard Estep)
    -REVIEW: of Call for the Dead (JacquiWine's Journal)