Call for the Dead by John le Carre

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Call for the Dead by John le Carre

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A senior civil servant commits suicide after a security vetting interview, even though he was cleared. The man who interviewed him cannot believe he would take his own life. The tense and atmospheric debut of George Smiley is a good, satisfying read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340993729

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George Smiley is arguably one of the best known fictional British spies. He made his first appearance in Call for the Dead, now reissued by Sceptre, in 1961. The book also launched John le Carré's career as a novelist. So if you're new to le Carré and/or George Smiley, this is definitely the place to start.

In many ways, Call for the Dead is a book of its time. It opens with a chapter setting out 'A Brief History of George Smiley', something a modern novelist might find difficult to get away with. But the 'backstory' of Smiley is interesting and, in part, important to what follows. Smiley is described variously as 'breathtakingly ordinary', 'short, fat and of a quiet disposition', 'a shrunken toad' and so on (and that's just on page one!). So, if it's Bond or Bourne you're after, look away now.

The story begins at chapter two. Set in a London I remember from my youth at the start of the Cold War, the novel still has half an eye on the Second World War, when Smiley was a field operative. Now confined to routine security clearance work, he is summoned to 'the Circus' to explain why a senior civil servant he recently interviewed should have committed suicide. Smiley felt the man posed no risk despite an anonymous tip-off to the contrary, so he is as puzzled as his superiors. With the help of a retired policeman, Smiley sets out to solve the mystery. In that respect, this is more a detective novel than a spy story.

As with all Le Carré novels, there are twists and turns in the plot and, although I managed to guess the answer to the mystery a little sooner than I would have liked, I remained involved and interested enough to read to the very end to see if I was right. And I rewarded with an exciting set-piece climax on Battersea Bridge to round everything off.

Set in a London of yellow fog and of a River Thames that smells of tar and coke, this is a novel that paints a brilliant picture of post-war Britain. Call for the Dead has as much to say (albeit unconsciously, to a certain extent) about the nature of the class system as it was in this country, barely fifty years ago, as well as the murky world of post-war espionage. But it is also concerned with 'the human condition', as all truly good books are.

Overall, a very satisfying read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: The next book in the series is A Murder of Quality. Charles Cumming has been dubbed 'the new Le Carré' so you might fancy his novel Typhoon.

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