Call for the Dead ★★★★☆
John le Carré
Genre(s) | Mystery, Espionage, Thriller
Goodreads Rating | 3.78
Humpo Show Rating | 3.90
Published: Originally 1961, I read a 2011 Penguin Classic edition
A smart, brisk spy thriller, le Carré’s Call for the Dead, engages its readers’ intellects as well as entertains them, in this suspenseful story. The story begins when British Secret Service Agent George Smiley has a straight forward interview with Foreign Office man Samuel Fennan, however, events turn on their head when Fennan apparently commits suicide a few hours later. Accompanied by Inspector Mendel, Smiley investigates the mystery surrounding Fennan’s death, and as they dig deeper into the details they uncover, Smiley realises that there is a shadier reason behind it all and he is determined to find out what that is.
Le Carré is famed as the best writer of espionage thrillers of all time, and Call for the Dead is his first ever published novel, and the first in his George Smiley series of books, but rather than a spy novel with some mystery mixed in, it turned out to be a mystery with some spies mixed in. This is not at all a criticism, simply an observation that I was not expecting to make when I first picked up this slim novel.
Le Carré uses an acerbic style for when he delineates the streets of London, this unique way of describing Smiley’s surroundings makes it very clear to the reader of the murkiness and maze-like structure of the streets that the investigation takes them. This style of writing is not limited to locations, he is also exceptionally capable of producing descriptions of people, and the thoughts and feelings they display through their mannerisms. Below is a section of le Carré’s work in between some dialogue. It is typical of the way he can perfectly phrase the ineffable.
“She looked old and tired, less resilent perhaps. She led him into the drawing room and with something like resignation indicated a chair.
Smiley offered her a cigarette and took one himself. She was standing by the window. As he looked at her, watched her quick breathing, her feverish eyes, he realized that she had almost lost the power of self-defence.
When he spoke, his voice was gentle, concessive. To Elsa Fennan it must have seemed like a voice she had longed for, irresistible, offering all strength, comfort, compassion and safety. She gradually moved away from the window and her right hand, which has been pressed against the sill, trailed wistfully along it, then fell to her side in a gesture of submission. She sat opposite him, her eyes upon him in complete dependence, like the eyes of a lover.”
This is the third work of le Carré’s that I have had the pleasure of reading, and like the other occasions where I came into contact with his writing, it leaves me eager to discover more of his work and also the historical period in which he sets his spy thrillers. That fact alone makes him a writer separate from many others for me, as he not only makes me appreciate his work, but also the inspiration for his work. I end up trawling the internet, reading bits and pieces of history to better understand the context in which it was written, which makes reading the story more enjoyable.
Call for the Dead is an intricate novel that I read very quickly. The writing style will be my enduring memory of this novel, the suspenseful manner of building up the story, and the murkiness of the settings and characters, all coalesce to create a gripping novel that espionage fans would simply not be able to put down.
The Humpo Show | Richard