John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *