John Le Carre chronological challenge 1

A few years ago I reviewed Graham Greene's spy thriller The human factor, the tale of a traitor who is about to be unmasked. I was reminded forcibly of this when reading John Le Carre's Call for the dead, his first novel, which I am absolutely sure inspired the later novel by Greene.

Ironic really as Ambler and Greene are very evidently big influences on Le Carre at this stage of his writing career. Many of the characters who will later become important parts of Le Carre's Cold War spy fiction are introduced here for the first time - the dogged George Smiley, CID man Mendel, likable junior spook Peter Guillam, Smiley's faithless wife Anne, even Mundt the East German spy master who will return in The spy who came in from the cold.

As a Le Carre fan, his first novel is a fascinating read, as it lays much of the groundwork for his later novels. It's a rather different read though from the Tinker, Tailor sequence though. It's part spy-story, part murder mystery. Smiley is asked to check the credentials of Samuel Fennan, who is about to receive access to more classified material. The interview appears to be amicable enough, Smiley likes Fennan, and assures him that there will be no further investigation. So Smiley is more astonished than anyone when Fennan commits suicide, apparently because he was devastated by Smiley's investigation. Smiley doubts the truth of this story, especially when he accidentally intercepts a wake-up call for a dead. Compelled to investigate, he finds that the roots may actually lie in his own past in a pre-war-Germany.

As always with Le Carre, he has a wonderful sense of time and place. You completely believe in his 1960's bleak London; if the characters are not as well formed as they will be later on, they are certainly firmly established in this novel. And although Le Carre is often criticised for his portrayal of women, the tortured soul who is Fennan's wife is fully and pathetically realised. There's no doubt that Call for the dead marked the emergence of a new and arresting talent. It's hard to believe that the writing could get much better than this, but it did.

This will be the first of a series of posts over the course of the year, as my reading challenge this year (along with the ongoing To Be Read challenge) is to read (or more usually re-read) all of Le Carre's novels in chronological order. After Call for the dead I'm thoroughly looking forward to it.


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