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.