Part 3 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.
When new readers pick up a John le Carré book, chances are they’ll opt for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or one of the new ones. Few will automatically reach for the author’s first book, the far less famous Call for the Dead. And in some ways, perhaps, that’s wise. Tinker, Tailor is a much richer book, and more likely to hook a new reader for life on le Carré’s writing. But there are good reasons to consider Call for the Dead as well. In fact, while Tinker, Tailor stands pretty well on its own, I would strongly advise reading Call for the Dead before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At the very least, Call for the Dead makes an essential prequel to that more famous novel, which directly follows events in the author’s first book. But it’s actually much more than that. Call for the Dead is a terrific spy novel in its own right, and as confident a debut novel as I’ve ever read, laying bare the promise of the phenomenal career to come. At a slight 150 pages or so, it’s also a very quick read and a great primer on the serious side of the spy genre that won’t require a serious investment of time.
the 1966 film adaptation (which was retitled The Deadly Affair) long before I ever read this book, and it was a definite improvement on the part of screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) to integrate Ann and her wayward ways into the story. (There’s certainly evidence that le Carré thought so, too, as he eventually appropriated significant portions of Dehn’s Ann plotline into Tinker, Tailor.) Of course, it’s more possible to have a character weigh heavily on another character’s mind in a book than a film, and there’s no doubt in the novel as to how much she means to Smiley.
Call for the Dead opens with Smiley well past his wartime prime, toiling away in petty administrative duties in the vast bureaucracy of the Circus (le Carré slang for British Intelligence), reviewing the files of potential traitors and updating their security clearance. The Circus received an anonymous letter reporting that a Foreign Office employee named Samuel Fennan had been a member of the Communist Party in his pre-war University days. Smiley is obligated to follow up on this, and suggests to Fennan that they conduct their interview in the park so as not to cause Fennan any embarrassment by meeting in his office. The interview goes smoothly, Smiley finds himself liking Fennan, and he concludes that no action is necessary; after all, “half the Cabinet were in the Party in the thirties.” All seems well. Then that night he’s awakened with a call summoning him into the office at an ungodly hour for a meeting with his fastidious, incompetent, politically-fixated boss, Maston. (Maston is known officially as “the Adviser,” a title we later learn preceded Control as functional head of the service, but better known among rival departments as “Marlene Dietrich” owing to his drama queen tendencies.) Maston is panicked. Fennan is dead, and there’s a suicide note blaming Smiley and the Circus for harassing him.
Smiley teams up with Mendel, a Special Branch detective on the verge of retirement who will recur throughout the series, to answer that question. The Adviser doesn’t want it answered. He wants the whole affair wrapped up as quickly as possible with minimal embarrassment for the Circus. Smiley is so outraged that he quits the Circus (the first of many such occasions), and decides to pursue the investigation on his own with the aid of Mendel and his former colleague, Peter Guillam (fated to be another recurring character), who provides crucial information from inside the secret service that Smiley’s no longer privy to. That innocuous phone call will lead this trio on a perilous quest involving East German spies, the London underworld, more murders, and specters from Smiley’s wartime past. It will also land Smiley in the hospital, the victim of a vicious attempt on his own life—and see him grappling in another brutal, life-or-death struggle atop his very own Reichenbach Falls. Yes, it's all a bit more physical and a bit more of an adventure than one might expect of George Smiley!
Call for the Dead the perfect Smiley paperback—a fast thriller to be consumed quickly on a long commute.
More than five years after writing this review, I revisited Call for the Dead in a discussion with Shane Whaley on the Spybrary podcast. Listen to that here.
The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)