Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. John le Carré has written some of the best known and most highly regarded espionage thrillers of recent decades. His George Smiley has become iconic, and le Carré’s stories have been adapted several times for film and television. It’s more than time that I featured one of his novels here, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Call For the Dead, the first George Smiley novel.
Smiley is an agent with the British overseas intelligence agency known as The Circus. When Foreign Office worker Samuel Fennan is accused of espionage, Smiley interviews him as a part of a security check. The accusations don’t seem to have any merit and, in fact, Smiley clears him. But only a few days later Fennan dies, apparently a successful suicide. On the very surface of it, the theory of suicide is logical; someone had suggested he was treasonous. Even if he’s innocent, his career could be ruined. And the whole thing means someone – whoever made the accusation – is trying to sabotage him.
But that explanation doesn’t account for everything. For one thing, Fennan wrote to Smiley shortly before his death, asking for a private meeting. Why would a man about to commit suicide do that? There are other inconsistencies too. And it’s not long before Smiley suspects that he’s been set up to take the blame for Fennan’s suicide. It’s also clear that Fennan was likely murdered so that he wouldn’t be able to keep his appointment with Smiley. That’s enough to make Smiley write a letter of resignation from The Circus.
Thinking he’s done with the matter, Smiley returns to his home, where he narrowly escapes a murder attempt. To Smiley, the connection to Fennan’s murder is obvious, and he works with Inspector Mendel of the Special Branch, who’s been investigating that death, to find out who the killer is.
The trail leads to a network of East German agents, and as Smiley gets closer to the truth, things get more dangerous for him. In fact, there’s another, nearly successful, attempt on his life. In the end, though, he and Mendel find out who killed Fennan and exactly why.
The murder itself – the death of Samuel Fennan – is one plot thread of this novel. Smiley and Mendel put together the evidence; and Smiley also uses his own knowledge and deduction to solve it. In that sense, this novel is a murder mystery.
But Fennan’s killing is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another very important element of the story is the murky network of espionage, counter-espionage, and other intrigue. It’s a world where no-one can completely trust another person, and where it’s dangerous to get close to anyone. Here’s what Smiley says about it at one point:
‘No one can stand it forever…They never understand that, do they? They never know what it costs – the sordid tricks of lying and deceiving, the isolation from ordinary people.’
It’s a world in which one doesn’t get to have a personal life, or close friends. And as the story goes on, we see the suspense that’s built up as it becomes less and less clear who can be trusted and who can’t be trusted.
Smiley is good at what he does; but he is fully aware of how far removed from simple human life it really is. He tries to see other people as human beings, as he is. And that, of course, often clashes with what he has to do. In one scene, for instance, he’s interrogating a person. At the same time as he is affected by that person’s reaction, he also acts with a certain amount of aloofness. He does what he can to manipulate the situation, and part of him sees it almost from a distance, as in a chess game.
That element of the actual human beings behind the chess game of international espionage is another important aspect of this novel. Smiley, Fennan, Fennan’s wife Elsa, Mendel and the other characters are not just players on one or the other ‘team.’ They are humans, each of whom has a history and a motivation. Their stories are multifaceted and are important parts of the novel. Because of that, it’s hard to say that anyone is really a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy.’ There’s too much complexity and too much moral ambiguity for that. Even Smiley, for instance, who’s ‘on the side of the angels’ does things that people might find morally reprehensible. And other characters, on the other side, can behave with real humanity. Readers who prefer quick-paced thrillers with more emphasis on action than on characters will notice this.
Of particular note is the character of George Smiley, since the story is told from his point of view. Smiley is not at all like the mythical James Bond, although he is certainly well-schooled in espionage. He’s rather unassuming, short, overweight, and not someone you’d pay much attention to normally. He’s a bit of a philosopher who would like to see the good in people. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of it in some people. He’s highly intelligent and observant, and good at what he does; but he’s not a superhero. There are no zap guns, and Smiley doesn’t burst into rooms, tackling five opponents at once.
That said though, there is action in the novel. After all, this a story about espionage. So there are secret packages and messages, exchanges of briefcases and so on. There are walks outdoors (to avoid bugged walls and telephones) and pre-arranged meetings. This is a story about spying in the days long before the Internet and email.
The novel takes place in London and Surrey, and le Carré places the reader there:
‘Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a relentless battle against the stigma of suburbia.’
It’s a look at that part of the UK in the years just after World War II. And I can say without spoiling the story that World War II does play a role in what happens.
Call For the Dead is the story of a set of characters caught up in Cold War espionage, and impact of that involvement on their lives. It features an unassuming but intelligent and skilled protagonist, and has a distinctive London/Surrey setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Call For the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 6 July/Tuesday 7 July – The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald
Monday 13 July/Tuesday 14 July – Monday 13 July/Tuesday 14 July – The Intruder – Håkan Östlundh
Monday 20 July/Tuesday 21 July – Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier