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Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel Paperback – October 2, 2012
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—The New York Times Book Review
"[Le Carré] is one of our great writers of moral ambiguity, a tireless explorer of that darkly contradictory no-man's-land."
—Los Angeles Times
"Brilliant. Realistic. Constant suspense...excellent writing."
“Thrilling…makes most cloak-and-dagger stuff taste of cardboard.”
—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
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The plot, of course, is superb, and the characters convincingly three-dimensional. Two unrelated items deserve mention:
1) DO NOT skip the Preface, in which the author charmingly explains how the Smiley novels came to be. Absolutely fascinating.
2) The diction and idiom are markedly more British here than in the later Smileys I've read (written with American as well as British markets in mind). Having lived in England for a year gave me a leg up, but I found myself relying upon Kindle's lookup function A LOT. It doesn't help that single words which an American "knows" can have very different meanings in England, but the average American reader will never think to look them up. Hence four stars, not five. But don't be put off! Buy it! Read it! And remember that this annoyance continues to abate throughout the later novels.
I've been a tremendous fan of John le Carré's George Smiley for years. How could one not be, especially after having seen the BBC's exemplary television adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People, both starring Alec Guinness?
CALL FOR THE DEAD was first published in 1962 when I was but thirteen. (It's hard to believe I was ever that juvenile. I may have read the book in the intervening years, though I suspect not. But, alas, memory fails.)
At this late date after Smiley has disappeared from le Carré's repertoire and Sir Alec is deceased, the chief delight for me in CALL FOR THE DEAD was learning about George's induction into the Secret Service, his early assignments recruiting and running German agents against the Nazi regime, and his marriage to Ann. Even Smiley was young once, though he apparently missed the high points.
Smiley's introduction to the readers of spy fiction takes place in his world of 1961 when George, while investigating the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office official shortly after being interviewed (by George) regarding his wartime membership in the Communist Party, encounters a blast from his own wartime past.
To those who've followed George's adventures over the years, it's evident in CALL FOR THE DEAD ‒ which was also the author's very first novel ‒ that the Smiley's character is in for considerable development over future years. Indeed, George must rely on the efforts of others, particularly an Inspector Mendel, to bring this case to a successful conclusion. Without Mendel, I doubt that Smiley would've pulled it off. In le Carré's later stories featuring George , especially when he's up against the Soviet master-spy controller Karla, our hero takes center stage, however low key and inscrutable in manner, and relinquishes it to no one.
For readers of today's younger generations who may only be familiar with the author's most recent works and know nothing of Smiley, CALL FOR THE DEAD is the place to start. The Cold War is over, but George is timeless.
"I can no longer recall if this is the first of the Smiley character novels by John Le Carre' or whether it is "Call for the Dead". Doesn't matter, both are great stories that get foreshadowed by the even greater story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the even greater production of the story by Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley in the PBS series of Tinker Tailor. Nevertheless, this is still a great story and well acted movie. Eclipsed by the other production of Smiley with Sir Alec Guinness. It'll entertain you as a thrilling story. The intellectual spy as detective. Great stuff."
The questions asked for doing the review such as How would you describe the plot -- slow, some twists, full of surprises" just don't pertain to John Le Carre'. Of course it isn't James Bond and there aren't a bunch of thrilling car chases and shoot outs; This is Le Carre' --- his Smiley is an intellectual spy (turned detective for some of the early books) and still a detective in the finest sense of the word as he unravels the layered on clues that expose the truth. It isn't supposed to have action; it has enough following the seemingly minor things that put the jigsaw together. This is how you think of spies whether MI 5 or CIA doing the hard work of sifting through a lot of things to make a true picture appear.
Top international reviews
In this, the first Smiley book, he interviews Fennan, a minor foreign office official about his communist party past. The interview goes well, and Smiley tells him not to worry. Shortly afterwards, Smiley is called by the head if the circus, telling him that Fennan has committed suicide, citing the pressure of the interview. What follows is a repeatedly twisting spy story as Smiley uncovers the involvement of a hostile intelligence service.
This very much reads as the work of a developing novelist. It is a very decent thriller, in which we learn a great deal about the history of George Smiley. It doesn't have the smooth sophistication of the later works, particularly LeCarre's masterpiece about the hunt for the mole, Gerald. The pieces of the plot clunk into place, rather than effortlessly meshing. It is to an extent overwritten, with regular expositional pauses as the plot to date is explained just before the next twist.
Possibly the most fascinating part of the book is seeing Le Carre test out ideas and characters for later books. George Smiley is pretty much himself, particularly in his disillusion with the Circus. Peter Guillam is rather more old school than the dashing thug of the later books. We are introduced to Smiley's sidekick from the Met, Mendel. The head of the Circus, Maston, politically sensitive, but operationally incompetent, is clearly Percy Alleline's successor. The degree of sympathy between hostile secret services is reminiscent of The Perfect Spy. Tellingly, at the denouement of Call for the Dead Smiley questions his morality, measured against the yardstick of his opponents, in a way which is later echoed in Smiley's people.
So, this is an excellent thriller, a chase through foggy London is particularly good. It is a very good work by a new novelist. It's understandably not quite up to the level of the author's later work.
I had read the Karla trilogy of George Smiley which takes place in the 1970s. I also read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in which George Smiley has a minor role. That is set in the 60s. Therefore, I was compelled to learn more of this wonderful character called George Smiley - a cultured and, perhaps, rather snobby English gentleman who works in the British Secret Service.
George Smiley is given a fine introduction in the first chapter, allowing the reader to know all about his beginnings and how he is a rather reserved yet intelligent man - quiet and polite with a softly spoken educated English manner. In some ways, most people might find George Smiley boring – a short tubby man with white hair and glasses when the story actually begins. He is middle aged and has been taken for a ride by his estranged and beautiful wife. No one who knew the Smileys could understand how such a marriage union could have happened in the first place.
We have this boring reserved man (George Smiley) whose wife has run off with a dashing Latin lover. This adventurous lover drives motor racing cars and lives in Cuba. Yet despite all of this, somehow this hopelessly smitten man (George Smiley) is our great hero with a modesty and vulnerability that makes him appear hopelessly week. He is a contradictory type of hero with a certain type of negative view of the world. He trusts virtually no one and has a gift for seeing deep inside people and the ability to keep everything to himself. When he does pick friends or confidants they are rare but usually well chosen. He works in an old and drab London office among clerical staff that all seem equally as cheerless. However, once the story gets going, these dull grey offices and the dreary corridors fade into obscurity. Suddenly, the dower and softly spoken English gentleman will become anything but monotonous.
George Smiley is an absolute peach of a British Agent who can decipher and adapt to his opponents well - very well indeed. In this wonderful story, we are introduced to Smiley for the first time as he tackles the suicide of a colleague and the subsequent involvement of East German field agents. Our little tubby man investigates and unravels with great aplomb. This is an absolute peach of a read and I would highly recommend this first George Smiley story.
B00B5ASIX0 The Black and Tan Summer
For those of you who have read the Smiley canon you will know that the Fennan debacle features in future plots. Le Carré was (is) brilliant at following threads through decades of suspense.
These latest editions from Penguin Modern Classics feature wonderful art-deco covers, which alone make them attractive to own.
This is le Carré's first novel, and I am in two minds. I have read a lot of his other novels, and enjoyed them. However, I strugged with this one - it takes a while to get going, and it seems that only at the very end do things start to move along with any sort of pace. This was a surprise because I have not felt this with other books - I suppose all writers styles evolve, and I don't want to be too critical. I'm certainly glad that the book was a success and we get to enjoy later Smiley stories - just perhaps not quite my cup of tea.
You see, Smiley is ordered to conduct a routine security check on Samuel Fennan, and, since he sees no serious concerns in Fennan's past—just a little harmless wartime flirtation with communism—he reassures Fennan and they part in friendly fashion. But soon Fennan is pronounced a suicide, and Fennan's wife Elsa claims that, after his interview with Smiley, her husband was unusually despondent. The higher ups want to stick Smiley with the blame for a botched interview and move on, but Smiley, who is not convinced this is a sucide, becomes even less convinced when he answers the phone in Fennan's flat and receives a “reminder call” Fennan arranged with his service. It just doesn't make sense. Why would a person who intends to commit suicide one a specific night arrange for a reminder call for the morning after?
Since this is a first novel, it has its flaws. For example, Smiley and Police Inspector Mendel are both used as third-person viewpoint characters, but Mendel's first appearance as viewpoint is disorienting, since it is far enough into the novel that we have identified ourselves with Smiley completely, and le Carre has not used any of the novelistic tricks that would make such a transition less confusing and more effective. Also, although le Carre's acerbic descriptions of many of the streets of London are precise and entertaining, they are sometimes too long, and thus retard the action and dissipate the suspense.
Still, Smiley is an intriguing narrator, the characters of Elsa Fennan, Inspector Mendel, and the shady car dealer Adam Scarr are lifelike and convincing, and the final confrontation and chase, in a small London theatre and in the surrounding streets, is suspenseful and exciting.
With the police satisfied that it is suicide when Smiley visits the widow he finds that things don’t seem to quite add up. Thus starts a dangerous game in London with other people’s lives in danger, including Smiley himself. If you don’t as you read this get all the things that Smiley comes up with then don’t worry as there is his submitted report near the back.
A story of espionage and the dangers that those who play the game have to face this has a shot of realism. As George has to start thinking back to his past you will see how something that is pretty mundane can cause catastrophic results just because of paranoia. After all we are playing the game of spies here, one that is still as old and dangerous as ever, especially here with the Cold War raging.
As there is a mystery of whether Samuel Fennan killed himself or was murdered this is also suitable for crime readers as well as spy thriller readers, and also as this is not too long makes for a quick exciting read.
Given that Call For The Dead was published in the decade after James Bond made his debut in print the casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that le Carré's work comes across as somewhat pedestrian when compared to Fleming's more popular secret agent. However, whereas Bond was effectively an early template of the action hero, complete with n unambiguous moral compass, George Smiley presents more of a morally complex character, along with a much more complex narrative.
It's this compelxity that I like, and while I don't personally consider this particular novel to be as good as some of the later George Smiley books I still found it to be gripping and readable. I read a few of the later novels when I was younger, but this was the first time I'd turned my attention to Call For The Dead. I can't say I was disappointed.
I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to round out their exposure to classic spy novels. If you're a fan of the classic James Bond action hero style spy stories then you may find this one a little slower than what you're used to but I'm sure if you stick with it you'll soon understand why le Carré is still considered by some to be one of the greatest spy writers of all time.
Despite Smiley's squat and unprepossing looks though, he has something far more attractive - intelligence in abundance, as well as great humanity and sensitivity to others. When asked to interview Samuel Fennan, at the Foreign Office, who has been anonymously accused of being a communist sympathiser, Smiley conducts the meeting with tact. He even goes so far as to tell Fennan not to worry, which is why he is so suprised when Fennan supposedly returns home devastated and later commits suicide. Something does not add up and Smiley sets out to find out what really happened. This is a world of real danger, where Smiley is almost killed and others murdered, where people are really hurt and suffer the consequences of their actions. A really intelligent novel and a great introduction to the Smiley books.
It is difficult to accept, though it is the truth, that this was his first novel. It reads like the work of an experienced author in his prime. Smiley is as well-formed in this, his first appearance on the printed page, as he is in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Of course, there will be some modern readers who won't be able to cope with the lack of gadgets and car chases, but anyone who wants a gripping read about realistic characters will adore Call for the Dead.
I have read a couple more since reading this one, but I shan't bombard you with reviews of them yet.