The spying game

If you've never been sure why John le Carre is rated as such a good writer, you can do no better than read his short novel Call for the dead. It is quite simply superb, a little gem of perfect writing. Written in 1967, it predates Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by a few years; and it features the "three musketeers" who are central to the later novel : the humane intelligence officer George Smiley, the junior spy Peter Guillam, and the laconic Special Branch officer Mendel.

Call for the dead opens with a bad day for Smiley. He had recently interviewed Samuel Fennan, who worked for the Foreign Office, about an alleged membership of the Communist Party. The interview had gone well, and in spite of Fennan's past as a "fellow traveller", he appears to have rejected his left wing past, and Smiley and Fennan part amicably. Smiley is shocked and puzzled when he learns that Fennan has committed suicide, allegedly as a result of the interview. An interview with Fennan's wife leaves Smiley with more questions to answer, as he gradually becomes aware that a shadow from his own past is coming back to haunt him.

It's a very clever taut tale of espionage. For anyone who is already a Smiley fan, this is a great little novel as it fills in much of the background to Smiley's own life - his recruitment to the Security Service, his time in the field, his relationship with the beautiful tempestuous Ann. But more than that it's a great example of good writing. Partly because the novel is so short (less than 160 pages), le Carre stays firmly on point, there are none of the divergences and digressions that occasionally spoil his writing. Smiley's drawing together of the clues is cleverly put together. Like the best crime novel the clues are all there, but will the reader put them together as neatly as Smiley?

I really enjoyed this. It's le Carre at his very best. I've always thought that he was at his most brilliant when writing about the Cold War, and here is the Cold War laid bare in all its bleakness. He's great at portraying times and places, I really did feel that I was back in late 1960's London. His humanity also shines through. This isn't just a simple James Bond tale of us and them. The motives for betrayal are often complex, and sometimes unclear, and this is just what is shown here. Brilliant writing - just don't start it late night, you won't be able to put it down until the very last page.


McGonagall said…
Yes, John le Carre is brilliant. My favourite novel is A Perfect Spy, that claustrophobic look into the making and breaking of a spy.
Book-hound said…
That's my favourite le Carre too! But Call for the dead is a real little gem, well worth reading.

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