Friday, November 25, 2011

Review of Call For The Dead by John Le Carre (1961, Gollancz)

The day after George Smiley interviews and clears Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker, of suspected espionage after an anonymous tip-off, Fennan's found dead having seemingly committed suicide. Smiley's boss at MI5 and the police seem to be content to accept that Fennan took his own life. However, after visiting the scene of death and interviewing Fennan's wife, a concentration camp survivor, Smiley is not convinced and neither is a local policeman, Mendel, who is about to retire. Unwilling to drop his investigation, Smiley quits his job and continues to work at the thin trail. A short time later he is viciously attacked and hospitalised. Undaunted, Smiley and Mendel patiently unravel clues and continue their hunt convinced that there are sinister forces at play.

Call For The Dead was Le Carre's first book and also introduced George Smiley to the reading public. It's a moderately thin read (157 pages) and the plot is relatively straightforward, with no substantive subplots. What marks Le Carre out is his voice and the careful layering and rhythm of the prose. In many ways, the storytelling style of Call for the Dead reminded me of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series, which was first published a couple of years later, in that the style is social realism (rather than noirish style of American hardboiled or the more swashbuckling style of spy thrillers such as Ian Fleming) and the pace is quite sedate as the story works its way to a somewhat understated climax. Like Martin Beck, Smiley is a fairly ordinary character who works through a case patiently and dogmatically, though he is a little more impetuous and foolhardy, and shares the donnish qualities of Colin Dexter's Morse. I read a number of the Smiley books when I was a teenager and it was interesting to revisit him now, especially since the character I remember was slightly different to the one presented (I thought of him as more enigmatic and calculating). Having looked around on the internet it seems that Smiley's character did mutate a little and his back story and career timeline altered quite substantially between books. He nevertheless remains one of fiction's enduring spy characters.

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