Monday, December 06, 2021

the last book I read

Call For The Dead by John le Carré.

George Smiley's wife has left him. This has become a pretty routine occurrence by the time of some of his later adventures, but here they have only been married a couple of years and her upping and running off with some hairy muscular Cuban racing driver for all manner of athletic sex and the like still has the power to sting. Smiley, characteristically, falls back on his extensive library of esoteric German poetry and his work as an intelligence officer for The Circus, a thinly disguised MI6. 

His current assignment is a bit of fairly routine tying-up of loose ends: Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office employee, has been the subject of an anonymous letter alluding to some Communist sympathies in his past. All fairly mild stuff, and who hasn't dabbled in a bit of the old Communism-sympathising at university - Smiley says as much to Fennan when they meet for an informal interview, firstly in Fennan's noisy Foreign Office premises and then in the quieter surroundings of a local park.

So it's something of a surprise when Fennan turns up dead in the hallway of his own house the following morning, with a gunshot wound to the head and in possession of a suicide note expressing despair at the ruination of his reputation and career at the hands of Smiley and the Circus. Smiley is dispatched to investigate, but a bit of embarrassment aside it is assumed that this will be a formality - a chap just overreacting to a bit of scrutiny, maybe some deeply-hidden complex being unleashed, who knows.

Smiley starts to smell a rat, though: Fennan's wife, Elsa, seems like a complex and tightly-controlled character who perhaps ought to be more grief-stricken than she is. Then again, that's just how some people are, isn't it? Odder is the 8:30am alarm call that Smiley fields while he's in the upstairs bedroom: Elsa claims to have ordered it but she's pretty clearly lying, and why would a man intending suicide arrange such a thing?

When he returns to his office, Smiley finds a letter from Fennan, dated the previous day, requesting that the two men meet for lunch to discuss an urgent matter. This also seems like strange behaviour from a man resolved to take his own life. Also rather strange is that the original letter denouncing Fennan and his suicide note are analysed to have been typed on the same typewriter (the one in Fennan's house) but by two different people. 

Smiley, with some help from a resourceful local copper, Mendel, and his Circus protégé Peter Guillam, starts to piece the case together and uncovers Fennan's involvement with some people working for an organisation supposedly called the East German Steel Mission, but fairly transparently a front for some espionage activities. Activities that turn out to involve agents who are still active and who attempt to kill Smiley (unsuccessfully) and (successfully) a man Smiley had questioned about supplying vehicles to the Mission, via the usual cloak-and-dagger sequence of anonymous drops and code-names.

After Elsa Fennan confesses to being an accomplice to her husband's spying activities, it looks as if the case will be wrapped up. But a couple of loose ends are still troubling Smiley - there's the matter of the unexplained phone call and letter, and Guillam has discovered that Fennan seemed to have made a point of only bringing home documents of no possible espionage value. 

Finally Smiley has a moment of revelation: it was Elsa who was the spy, and Fennan had been increasingly suspicious of her and had engineered the meeting with Smiley as a way of raising his concerns with the authorities - it was Fennan and Smiley being spotted together that spooked the Germans and led to Fennan's murder. Smiley devises a way of luring Elsa's East German contact to England and stakes out the London theatre where they are to meet. But once the man, Dieter, a former wartime associate of Smiley, sniffs out the subterfuge he ruthlessly strangles Elsa in her seat and flees through a foggy London before the climactic confrontation on the banks of the Thames. 

This was John le Carré's first novel, published in 1961, and the first appearance of George Smiley in print. It's quite instructive to compare Call For The Dead with, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, published thirteen years later: most obviously Call For The Dead is very short at 157 pages, while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a bit more of a doorstop at 400+ pages, but also the earlier book is really a murder mystery with an espionage flavour tacked on, this being what le Carré knew about from his real-life experiences, while the later book is fully immersed in the minutiae of spy tradecraft. The book that gave le Carré the confidence to abandon the mystery genre elements and do this was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published a couple of years later in 1963, and which features Smiley and Guillam in minor roles as well as Hans-Dieter Mundt, who features in a thuggish minor role here, in a more major one. 

In many ways Call For The Dead fills a similar spot in the le Carré canon as A Mind To Murder fills in that of PD James: an early work, modest of length and adhering to genre constraints much more than later, longer, more boundary-stretching, genre-transcending novels. I enjoyed it greatly, though, not least because you can zip through it in a couple of days. It was filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair, presumably to cash in on the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a film which bagged the rights to the name "George Smiley", so he became "Charles Dobbs" instead. 

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