Call For The Dead by John le Carré (1961)

[Smiley] hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved has been the product of intense individualism. (p.138)

This, John le Carré’s first novel, introduces British intelligence officer George Smiley, who will go on to appear in seven subsequent le Carré books. The first chapter gives his biography – public school, Oxford, scholarly interest in 17th century German poetry, recruitment into the intelligence service, running agents in 1930s Europe – and contrasts his unromantic, intensely intelligent and scholarly character with that of his flamboyant wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who he surprises everyone he knows by marrying – and then who surprises no-one at all by leaving him for a glamorous Cuban racing-car driver before the novel begins.

The plot

The British Intelligence Service receives an anonymous letter pointing out that Foreign Office staffer, Samuel Fennan, was a communist party member in the 1930s. Intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with interviewing him and gives a standard and sympathetic interrogation while they stroll round St James’s Park, and concludes by telling him he has nothing to worry about. The next day Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. Why?

With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind Fennan’s death, namely that he was murdered by an East German spy ring. Unknown to Fennan, his wife was a spy and had been copying the classified documents he brought home, then meeting with her controller to give him copies. Fennan wrote the anonymous letter accusing himself because he knew it would activate an enquiry, and call in Intelligence, at which point he would be able to air his suspicions of his wife. Following his interview with Smiley, Fennan had sent the latter a note inviting him to meet again for lunch. Presumably at this lunch he would have stated his suspicions – but someone saw him in St James’s Park with Smiley, thought (correctly) that he was about to reveal his suspicions – and murdered him.

The same person, later identified as a tall, blonde assassin, Mundt, is intruding in Smiley’s flat in Bywater Street, when Smiley arrives home after meeting Fennan’s wife. Smiley hears noises, rings the bell as if a visitor, notes the man who answers the door, makes his excuses and walks away – noting the numbers of all the cars in the street.

The CID man on loan to Smiley helps track one of these cars to a dodgy south London car salesman who, after a bit of pressure, admits to loaning out the car at regular intervals to a foreign gentleman. Smiley is inspecting the car in question in the dealer’s yard when someone attacks him savagely, beating him about the head. He comes round in hospital. A few weeks later the car salesman’s body is found in the Thames.

Throughout this time Fennan’s widow, Elsa, had claimed to Smiley that Fennan was the spy, and had been murdered by his controllers. She span an elaborate story about how Fennan was recruited on the Continent, and about his controllers, with lots of detail describing how messages were sent between them. But on closer investigation various details just don’t ring true, especially the letter from Fennan inviting Smiley to diner: why send it then kill himself? Smiley begins to suspect the wife. And when his people discover that the East German Steel Delegation was being run by a man named Dieter Frey, the pieces slot into place.

Because Smiley had himself run Frey as an agent against the Nazis during the War. Clearly he had survived the War and gone on to become an important figure in East German intelligence.

At the climax of this short novel Smiley uses his knowledge of Frey’s old procedures to send a (fake) emergency request meeting to Elsa Fenner. When she rendezvous with Frey in a crowded theatre, the latter realises it’s a set-up, that British Intelligence are on to him. He silently and shockingly strangles Elsa in the theatre, then makes his getaway through the exiting crowds and the foggy streets. But the persistent CID man tails him to a houseboat near the Lots Road power station, and it is here that Smiley meets him and, as Frey attacks and beats Mendel, charges into the fight, battering Frey and accidentally pushing him over the embankment wall into the oily, black Thames where he drowns.

Comments

All the components of le Carré’s fiction are here in this first, highly-finished novel. It is deeply imagined and eminently plausible, detailed in description of people and procedure, and agreeably jaded and world-weary in its analysis of human nature. What I didn’t like is the snobbery and the Lady Ann plotline.

Lady Ann Smiley appears in no fewer than eight le Carré novels, and the ongoing saga of his unfaithful wife follows him like a tiresome puppy. This runaway wife schtick always seemed to me too pat, too improbable – as portrayed she genuinely is too glamorous and exciting to have ever married a quiet, thoughtful nobody like Smiley – and it is a sullying of Smiley’s integrity. As if Conan Doyle tried to persuade us that Holmes had a hot little mistress on the side. It is inappropriate and not necessary. Smiley’s character, and the storylines, are better without her.

Snobbery In the early pages of the novel, as he skims through his biography, le Carré emphasises that Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive’ public school and an ‘unimpressive’ Oxford college – but the snobbery and elitism of this tiny world are present in the very need to demarcate him so much from the priviliged few who went to impressive public schools and impressive Oxford colleges. It is all part of their closed code. These people represent less that 1% of the population, and yet, to hear them talk, they are the only people who matter, they are Britain and the Empire etc. Some of the ‘best’ of them, of course, turn out very gratifyingly to have been vile traitors. (And Kim Philby’s treachery is the basis of le Carré best-known novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Le Carré may be satirising and condemning aspects of this tiny world – but he still speaks from inside it.

On a more superficial level, Smiley is just as comme il faut as James Bond: fastidious about eating at the ‘correct’ restaurants, and drinking the ‘correct’ wine with the ‘correct’ dish; noting the place in the elaborate class hierarchy of non-public school characters, the precise calibration of their accent, whether their trousers have a neat crease in them or not, and so on.

This book was published in 1961, just before the attack on deference and class consciousness which was, allegedly, a key achievement of that noisy decade ie we should maybe forgive its dated attitudes. Still, the continual drip-drip of the just-so restaurant and the florid chaps calling each other ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ over the whiskey or the port, grate a little on the nerves of someone who didn’t happen to go to a public school, impressive or otherwise.

Resignation

Only a few chapters into the novel Smiley resigns. He is already portrayed as over the hill, superceded by younger, flashier men in a much-expanded Security Service and he is enraged by his boss’s attempts to smooth over the murder. Thus he conducts the majority of the investigation unofficially, with the key aid of the CID man and Guillam, who remains ‘on the inside’, and can use the Service’s resources. At the end of the novel his smooth boss – Maston – sends him a letter urbanely rejecting the resignation, understanding that he was ‘under a lot of strain’ etc etc, of course consider yourself still employed. Smiley sends back a rejection of the reinstatement and takes a flight to the south of France to be reunited with his wife. But we know he’ll be back.

Credit

Call For The Dead by John le Carré, Gollancz, 1961. Quote from the 1979 Penguin edition.

Related links

The movie

Call for the Dead was made into a movie in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason as the Smiley figure (renamed Charles Dobbs), with impressive support from Harry Andrews as the solid English copper Mendel, Simone Signoret as the spy Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as the old friend-cum-spymaster Dieter Frey.

It is not a good watch because of the Mason character; instead of Lady Ann, the screenwriters have lumbered the Smiley figure with a wife half his age, and foreign, and instead of Lady Ann’s tactful absence, this woman is there whenever Mason gets home, and they have horribly intense and realistic rows.

As so often in his later films, Mason comes across as a very tortured soul and the intensity of these scenes with his unhappy young wife completely overshadow the espionage plot. The whole thing is shot in a virulent technocolour which makes everyone look as if they’ve died and been badly made up by a cheap undertaker, and, given the gloom of the characters and the constant rain and the locations in the crappy back streets of south London, it seems wildly inappropriate that the film has a bright and breezy bossa nova soundtrack.

Poster for The Deadly Affair

Poster for The Deadly Affair

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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1 Comment

  1. hamilton beck

     /  February 25, 2016

    Le Carre himself called “Deadly Affair” – “not very distinguished.”
    Somewhat surprising, given that, on the whole, Lumet was one of the better directors.

    Reply

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