Le Carre: Call for the Dead

My mystery group chose John Le Carre’s 1961 novel Call for the Dead to discuss at our last meeting. It was my first Le Carre novel, and my first spy novel in a long, long time (I may have read one or two when I was a teenager). As we discussed in our group, though, this one isn’t really a spy novel, but more of a mystery/spy hybrid, or actually just a mystery that happens to have some spies in it. Even so, I think I can safely say that spy novels are not my thing, because whenever this book veered off into spy territory, I was alternately confused, irritated, antsy, and bored. There was one point when I got confused about names and wanted to tell Le Carre there is no need to give two different characters the name Dieter.

But there were other moments when I was enjoying myself, particularly when reading about the main character, George Smiley. The opening chapter is an odd one, basically giving us Smiley’s life story in summary form before anything interesting happens at all. No jumping straight into the action for this book. Smiley is a sad sort of protagonist: he’s getting on up in age, looking a little decayed and overweight; he’s in a career he didn’t really want — instead of working in intelligence, he wanted to be a scholar of 17C German literature; and his wife, who affectionately calls him “toad” has just left him. No one was really sure why such a beautiful woman married such a sad sack anyway.

The plot begins when Smiley interviews government worker Samuel Fennan because someone sent an anonymous letter accusing him of harboring communist sympathies. The interview seems amicable, but the next day, it appears that Fennan has committed suicide as a result of the interview. Smiley’s boss accuses him of mishandling things, and Smiley suspects Fennan’s death may not have been a suicide after all. While interviewing Fennan’s wife Elsa, their phone rings. It appears to be a wake-up call, but Elsa Fennan is surprised and lies about it. Smiley knows he needs to figure out why.

It’s Smiley and his relationships that are the most interesting; he strikes up an immediate friendship with a man named Mendel, a police officer helping him work on the case. The two of them have a rapport that’s a pleasure to witness. Smiley also has to confront an old friend-turned-antagonist, Dieter Frey, a man Smiley recruited as a spy in World War II. Dieter’s life has take a very different turn since then, and Smiley has to decide just how much their old relationship matters in a world that has changed dramatically since they first knew each other.

The post-World War II political climate is also interesting (although my patience with this sort of thing is limited); Smiley is a staunch individualist in a world beginning to grapple with the growing power of socialism:

He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth-century. Everything he admired and loved had been the product of intense individualism. That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before; it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favor of the mass. When had mass philosophies ever brought benefit or wisdom?

As my book group decided, the book captures well the uncertainties of the time when friends turned into enemies, former allies turned into foes. Smiley tries to navigate his way through this tricky maze, but he feels past his prime and out of place. It’s the quintessential outsider position that many, many mystery heroes find themselves in, willingly or not.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “Le Carre: Call for the Dead

  1. I’ve never read anything by him–this sounds more interesting than I’d have guessed.

  2. Jordan Gray

    It has been a while since I have read a good spy/mystery novel. I honestly haven’t like the few that i have read because i find them a little cliche, but i might give this one a shot.

  3. Interesting… I’ve just borrowed Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because it is being made into a movie, with Colin Firth. ;) I’d like to read it before seeing the adaptation. It’s also a George Smiley novel. Just wonder if anyone in your book group has read it. Curious to know how the two compare.

  4. If you want to appreciate George Smiley you have to see either the TV version of his books made by the BBC a couple of decades ago, with Alec Guinness or listen to their more recent radio adaptations with Simon Russell Beale. They are both absolutely riveting and a must for long cold winter nights. My library has stopped asking me if I want new Le Carre books reserving. They just put them on onside for me as soon as they come in. His latest, ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ has a wonderful Cameo in it that should make one of our senior politicians blush every time he thinks about it – if that is he was capable 0f blushing! However, if you want to try just one of his books guaranteed to blow your mind, read ‘The Constant Gardener’. It would have to be one of my all time greatest novels.

  5. I’ve never read le Carre, because I fear for those moments of opacity in the story when the reader had no idea who’s done what or why or even what is happening, exactly. I have a very low tolerance threshold for not knowing things in stories – or at least, I’m happy not to know the things that are signposted as mysteries, but when I’m not even sure what I’m not knowing… well sort of get my drift!

  6. I read le Carre years ago; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I think. Maybe I should try beginning with the first one. Or the BBC adaptations.

  7. Two characters named Dieter? Was there a reason for it? I would be annoyed by it too if there weren’t.

  8. I, too, was worried that it would be full of technical spy jargon and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was, as the group decided, a mystery that happens to have a couple of spies in it. I wonder if Le Carre gets more technical in later works.

  9. Lilian — I probably would have continued on without reading him if it weren’t for my book group. That’s what makes book groups so great!

    Jordan — I suppose there’s the danger for any type of genre fiction, or any kind of fiction, for that matter, to fall into cliches. This one is good, and I hope you like it!

    Arti — I’m sure people in my group did read that one, but I don’t remember what they said about it. I will definitely watch that movie, with Colin Firth in it! :) I’m curious to see what you think of the book.

    Annie — thanks for the information! The BBC series sounds like a lot of fun. I don’t know that I’ll read more Le Carre, but if I get in the mood, The Constant Gardner is what I’ll pick up. I’m curious about that cameo you mention!

    Litlove — I think I know what you mean! I’m easily confused by plots, and I don’t like it. It’s particularly tough in movies where the action happens so quickly and I can’t stop it to rewatch something. And when you’re purposely kept in the dark and confused — no fun.

    Jenclair — I agree with you about the BBC adaptations; they sound like fun. And if I watch them at home, I can stop them and rewatch something if I can’t figure out what’s going on!

    Stefanie — well, one was Hans-Dieter, and the other was just Dieter, but Le Carre uses last names and nicknames as well, and it’s all a confusing mess for a while!

    Emily B. — I don’t know if he does or not, but definitely most of the others are more traditional spy novels, of course. But whether that includes lots of jargon, I’m not sure. Thank goodness this one was fairly clear of it!

  10. If our mailman ever decides to deliver our mail again, we should have the Murder of Quality DVD by LeCarre to watch. The audio was great, but we couldn’t find the last part of the series to listen to the end. This too is more of a mystery than a spy novel; I was glad to read your background of Smiley’s life, so when we do see the film, I’ll know more about him. Then again, I was painting the guest room when listening to the audio, so maybe I missed something? :)

    I love your long list of downloaded books, and your list of print books from your birthday trip to NYC. I hope that despite classes, you are finding a lot of reading time, and enjoying every minute of it!!!

  11. See, I don’t think I can do spy novels either. I love spy movies but somehow the novels just don’t sound appealing. How odd is that given that I love mysteries. Anyway, the characters with the same name would have bugged me big time.

  12. Debby — listening to Murder of Quality sounds like fun! I just got the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the mail today, and I’m excited about watching it. It will be interesting to see what the movie version of George Smiley looks like! I’ve definitely been enjoying my reading time — I have so much extra with all the school closings!

    Iliana — it’s a little strange, isn’t it, to like mysteries but not spy novels? I totally agree with you though. I think spy novels are just technical enough to present a challenge for my non-political brain to figure out.

  13. Surprisingly I’ve discovered I like spy novels, though I’ve not read very widely yet, so it may entirely depend on the sort of story it is! I’ve yet to read Le Carre but I have one of his earlier novels on my pile!

  14. Danielle — it’s great that you do like them. Maybe I could develop a taste if I tried, but I won’t spend the time on it. I hope you enjoy Le Carre when you get to him!

  15. Is Le Carre always write spy stories? I am also into mystery but not really into spy.
    I have one of his books, The Constant Gardener on my shelf…it has been rotten there for 2 years. I’m still in between wanting to read it or not.

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