ISBN-10: ISBN-10 : 0141198281, Penguin Classics
Followers of Shelf Indulgence will know that I review fiction and non-fiction, popular titles or classics, new releases, books I first read twenty or more years ago, or those books I missed on first release. First published in 1961, and set during the Cold War, Call For The Dead, Le Carré’s debut introduces the Smiley spy novels. Since it’s pushing sixty, that’s a major miss on my part, and so darned good it embarrasses me to admit that this is my first reading.
A middle-aged intelligence officer consigned, post-war, to performing security checks and writing reports, George Smiley is horrified to discover that a civil servant he interviewed has apparently committed suicide. It’s an open-and-shut case, but Smiley is plagued by a single anomaly and is compelled to investigate further.
I admit I had some negative preconceptions: surely, the novel was bound to be dated and male-centric, set as it was in an era when women were sidelined or else stereotyped? It’s true that phones are strictly of the non-mobile variety, and London phone exchanges in Call For The Dead still have charming names like ‘Primrose’ rather than numbers; there’s even a thrilling chase in a London pea-souper. But these details convey historical context, not obsolescence, and Smiley’s sharp observations and insights certainly don’t date. Even as he makes his mild responses, he is assessing and characterising, and in his inner monologue we glimpse the incisive and ruthless mind belied by his outward blandness. He finds it ‘exciting’, for instance, that his boss, looking for someone to blame, is as ‘unpleasant as he expected’. Exciting, indeed – what an odd response from an ageing bureaucrat! But Smiley is a paradox: soft-spoken, balding, a podgy little man who is often ignored. Intensely moral, he is plagued by guilt, and yet he spent most of WW2 behind enemy lines and is described by a rival spymaster as ‘the best he’d ever met.’ He is the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s Bond – and all the better for it.
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