Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Call for the Dead: John le Carré

Early Wednesday morning, Smiley is summoned to the Cambridge Circus because a civil servant, Samuel Fennan is dead, a suicide. Smiley had interviewed him on the previous Monday to investigate an anonymous tip that he was a member of the Communist Party at Oxford. The interview had gone well and Smiley had told the man that he would be cleared of any suspicion. However, Fennan claimed in his suicide note that Smiley had ruined his career. Maston, head of the Circus, requests that Smiley follow up by interviewing Fennan's wife.

The title refers to a wake up call for the dead man that is received the morning after he died. This call comes to his home, and Smiley answers the phone. This convinces Smiley that the man did not commit suicide, even though all of the evidence points towards suicide. He insists on investigating further, against the wishes of Maston. This book introduces us to Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, who work with Smiley on the case; both have roles in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It also has the first appearance of Mundt, who features prominently in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I first read this book in 2007. In January of this year, I finally started reading the remainder of the Smiley novels. When I got around to reviewing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Sergio of Tipping My Fedora noted the connection to Call for the Dead, which I had forgotten entirely. Now, after going back and re-reading it, I do see that this book is a good introduction to the later books.

However, it did take me another nine years to come back to le Carré's after reading Call for the Dead the first time. I did not dislike the book on the first read, but I don't think I was terribly impressed. Now, after reading several other of the Smiley books, I had an entirely different reaction.

This time I found Call for the Dead clever and compelling, a very short novel with a lot of depth for its length. It is primarily a detective story, and Smiley's ability to analyze and evaluate facts is highlighted. But it is also set within the framework of MI6 operations and its bureaucracy.

Having now read the first five books featuring Smiley, I find myself confused at the time line of the books overall, and from what I have read at other blogs, I am not the only one. It doesn't really matter for the enjoyment of the books,  but I have a mind that likes to organize things, so I keep trying to figure it out. Are all the books told in the order of Smiley's career? It seems like every book I have read mentions Smiley coming back out of retirement. The first chapter in the book is devoted to an overview of Smiley's career, and you would think this would straighten out the time line but it did not help.

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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2002 (orig. pub. 1961) 
Length:       144 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


14 comments:

  1. Like you, I first read this book some time ago - longer ago than you. Then, I was disappointed: I was reading a lot of straight murder stories and found this did not compare well. But I might think differently now. I probably will re-read sometime.

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    1. I really think I enjoyed it more this time because I had recently read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Moira. I liked getting more of a picture of Smiley. The first read was during a stressful time in my life, maybe I needed lighter reading. Regardless, I am very glad I went back and re-read it.

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  2. Thank you, Tracy, for the kind mention. And I'm glad that you liked the story better the second time around. I think it happens that way sometimes: people come back to a story with a different perspective, and so, feel differently about it. And in my opinion, a re-read of the Smiley books is always worth the time.

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    1. I am very glad that Sergio's comment led to me rereading the book now, Margot. A great experience.

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  3. I plan to get back to this one, Tracy. I remember where I stopped: it was after Smiley got ambushed. The momentum after that kind of slowed down to a crawl I thought. Your review has me anxious to give it another read. Thanks!

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    1. In rereading this, Keishon, there was more violence than I remembered or expected. Not much and not a problem, but just different from the other books by le Carre that I have read so far. I hope you like it more on the second attempt.

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  4. I've never read one of his books. What book should I start with?

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    1. That is a hard question to answer, Ryan. I have only read his first five books, and they are all Smiley books, although he is a minor character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War. I would say start with Call for the Dead for a really good introduction to Smiley. Many people do start with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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  5. Thanks for the kind words Tracy and so glad the re-read went well, I think it is an essential primer in the Smiley saga - the impression I have, as a reader, is that after the first two Smiley books of the 1960s, Le Carre started to marginalise him, but then brought him back in the 70s after the disaster that was THE NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER to get himself back in harness, so to speak. He is tougher not he character in the 60s then he is in the 70s it seems to me, and actually I think that's why I prefer the progress on the first batch of books, much as I enjoy the later ones.

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    1. I am very glad I went back and read it again, Sergio, thanks to you. His books are very rereadable. We are in the midst of watching the BBC mini series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the third time but it has been so long it is all new. Enjoying it a lot.

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  6. Tracy, I still have to read my first Smiley novel even though a couple of them are sitting on my shelves.

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    1. My Smiley books sat there a long time, Prashant. I do think you will like them when you get to reading them.

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