open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
Nearly a year and a half ago, I wrote in my review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy these words:
The only thing that I objected from the book was that some of these characters and Smiley in particular had already been introduced in previous le Carré books. I felt like I was joining the party halfway through, have no choice but to awkwardly join a conversation as to not appear lonely and no one bothered to tell me what they were talking about in the first place. I find myself wishing I’d known Smiley a little bit better from before. I wanted to know what he was like before.
Due to what I perceived as my own fault for not getting into George Smiley’s history first before picking up that book, I decided to backtrack and read John le Carré’s works chronologically – in the order his books were published. I didn’t manage to do that, having read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold first instead of getting Call For The Dead
But let’s not get there first. What we need to talk about first is the story of the novel itself, which is an intriguing work of fiction, if not a rather flat one.
I say flat because Call For The Dead has none of the intensity of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or the thrill of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It is the story of an investigation of a Foreign Office official who suspicious died after Smiley had interviewed him. The consequences of this death affected Smiley’s career and personal safety. In order to uncover the damnable plot behind the curious events, Smiley worked with his new acquaintance Inspector Mendel and his “Circus” colleague Peter Guillam. During the course of the book, several information (“facts” of the incident that happened in the story) were often repeated; usually as a way of Smiley getting his thoughts together. Some might consider this helpful, but I just find it cumbersome.
So nothing spectacular there in terms of plotting. Style-wise, as this is le Carré’s first work, there was nothing really significant that I could tell. It’s a very reserved novel in that there’s no flair in the writing, just a hard, cold narrative. Although perhaps, in order to convey a message of moral ambiguity and how ‘grey area’ the space that Smiley occupies, this restrained the author’s restraint is quite efficient. For readers who are used to the sensationalism of other detective novels – or Bond films, for example – the book might be a touch too subtle and too slow-paced for their tastes.
Those who like character-based stories, however, can find plenty of gems in Call For The Dead. As an introduction to George Smiley, the man and the spy, and his key group of allies, it works more than efficiently. It works brilliantlyeven. In expounding Smiley’s character, le Carré did a marvelous job in that he painted someone so dull he was interesting. The fact that Smiley looked unremarkable made him interesting. The fact that he was not good enough for his wife made him interesting. And the fact that he went through several rides through the roller coaster emotionally made him even more attractive.
Smiley didn’t appear to us as a young man. This is not a novel about an evolution of the main character. It is a story with a specific time frame, where something happened and was later solved within a short span of time. And yet, le Carré still had time to give us a complete background on his protagonist. Perhaps it came at the expense of a more fluid pace and a more thrilling plot, but even so we still get a rich tale of a man who ends up being one of the greatest fictional spies of all time.
This book also serves as our first window to glimpse into the world of the Circus. Its inner workings are not explained as elaborately as it was in his later novels, but we get a ‘genesis’ – or, rather, an origins story – of how things worked, how Smiley went from working during the World War II and coping with a different environment after that war. The themes of ideology, politics, social class and religion that later appear in le Carré’s subsequent novels all started here and, in a way, we are also looking into the history of Great Britain and Europe in that era.
Like all books that are first novels, the words “it could have been better” ring true for Call For The Dead. But I’m not here to criticize someone like John le Carré because I am not equal to or better than him. I’m here as a fan who is saying, “Sir, it’s a good book, but it wasn’t as great as your later works.” But I’m also saying, “That George Smiley, wow. So he is THAT intriguing!”
If your purpose, like mine, is to get to know George Smiley and his cronies better, then Call For The Dead will serve it. And it serves it well, by also giving us plenty other things on the side. These things accumulate into what has become a solid and pleasing, though not too stylish, entrée to bigger, greater and more delightful courses to come.