What I’m Reading: John le Carré – Call for the Dead

After thoroughly enjoying The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I decided that it was time to read some more of le Carré’s works, and as I am somewhat OCD about reading things in their proper order, that meant starting with his first published novel.

Call for the Dead is about the Fennan case that gets mentioned several times during the course of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The earlier novel comes across as more cerebral, which is most likely due to its main protagonist, namely George Smiley who appears both less physical and emotionally more restrained than Leamas. It also behaves a bit awkard in places, and occasionally one begins to wonder whether the whole construction won’t come crashing down around the reader’s ears, but this is a debut novel after all, so one has to make some concessions, and by and large le Carré pulls it off.

During its first two thirds, Call for the Dead is much closer to being a traditional mystery than a spy thriller, presenting itself as a classical whodunnit. But then an interesting and quite clever twist occurs (assuming, of course, that it was done intentionally and is not rather indicative of a debut author still struggling to find his form – in either case, though, the shift in genre is as disconcerting as it is effective). While in a mystery discovering the motive is a means to find out who the murderer is, in Call for the Dead discovering the killer’s identity only serves as a step on the way of finding out the motive behind the murder, and it also marks the point where the novel leaves crime fiction behind and crosses the border into spy thriller territory.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the novel that made le Carré famous, and in all fairness it is probably the better novel, too – still, speaking strictly for myself, I have to say that I liked Call for the Dead better than the later book. I am not quite sure why, but I suspect it is because of its protagonist George Smiley who comes across as a distinctly more ambivalent figure than Alec Leamas. Even though Smiley is the central point of view character, he remains mysterious to the reader right until the end, somehow managing to retain an aura of cool aloofness even after we have been looking over his shoulder for several hundred pages. It seems a very deft touch to first introduce him by way of his failed marriage, thus having his former wife give some kind of outside perspective on him and establishing right away the contrast between his unassuming exterior and his brilliant mind. (Also, as an aside, for anyone who watched the BBC TV series it is simply impossible not to picture Alec Guiness as George Smiley, such is the perfection down to the very last detail with which he played, even became that character. Which, I suppose, can be constraining – it definitely was for le Carré who stopped having him feature in his novels – but I found it quite fascinating to have such a distinct visual image of Smiley – it’s almost like he was a historical character who I had seen in the news and whose fictionalized version I was now following through the plot of the novel.)

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