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on 3 November 2016
Le Carre seems to be finding his feet here. The mystery isn't as multi-layered as the later Smiley novels, It's less cerebral, with simple violence being used to wrap up the episodes. In many ways it's a conventional crime novel. Smiley's background is filled in , but this book is a curiosity, rather than something that intrigues.
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on 8 March 2001
If you haven't read any of the Smiley books, this short book is a good place to start. Written and set at the height of the Cold War, George Smiley is seen by the Department as a 'has-been' and is restricted to routine work. In the course of this he does a routine interview of a senior civil servant. Even though he assures the man that he is perfectly satisfied, the man apparently commits suicide. The twists and turns of the plot are well-told and satisfying and the answer to the mystery are not telegraphed too early. Overall, a good read.
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Reading the biography of John le Carré earlier this month has sent me back to re-read the novels, starting with this one, first published more than fifty years ago. Compared to his later books, it's more like a murder mystery than a spy story, although it establishes George Smiley (hero of more elaborately complex books such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) in its opening pages as a clever man with a disappointed emotional life. Characters and settings are assuredly sketched in: Guillam is "the kind of friendly spirit who always has a timetable and a penknife" [p17], whilst the people Smiley sees through his Chelsea window include "leggy Kensington girls going shopping with beautiful young men in pale blue pullovers [and] the car-cleaning brigade toiling happily in front of their houses, then drifting away to talk motoring shop and finally setting off purposely down the road for the first pint of the week-end" [p123]. It's a well-written, confident debut with an interesting and gripping plot which doesn't take long to read, but is nonetheless rewarding.

[A very minor mystery which came to light during this latest re-reading is why the name of the Oxford district of Holywell has been spelt with an extra l on p90 - a slip-up which has apparently survived to the latest printing of the book.]
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First published back in 1961 this still makes for a riveting read. It starts with George Smiley being asked to interview a Samuel Fennan, who works for the Foreign Office. There has been an anonymous letter about Fennan and for security reasons a few questions need to be asked. For Smiley it is just routine and he feels that the meeting went okay with no problems – but then Fennan is found dead, apparently after killing himself.

With the police satisfied that it is suicide when Smiley visits the widow he finds that things don’t seem to quite add up. Thus starts a dangerous game in London with other people’s lives in danger, including Smiley himself. If you don’t as you read this get all the things that Smiley comes up with then don’t worry as there is his submitted report near the back.

A story of espionage and the dangers that those who play the game have to face this has a shot of realism. As George has to start thinking back to his past you will see how something that is pretty mundane can cause catastrophic results just because of paranoia. After all we are playing the game of spies here, one that is still as old and dangerous as ever, especially here with the Cold War raging.

As there is a mystery of whether Samuel Fennan killed himself or was murdered this is also suitable for crime readers as well as spy thriller readers, and also as this is not too long makes for a quick exciting read.
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on 12 August 2016
I can't add much to what's been said here but let's acknowledge, and perhaps lament the passing of, the etiquette of a politer world when gentlemen staffed the secret service and got involved in capers perpetrated by such bounders as the "East German Steel Mission". Smiley is about to set off in hot pursuit of his arch enemy Dieter: "He had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there'd be the most frightful row if he used it." Oh, yes, most frightful. This sequence reminded me of a moment in Eric Ambler's Cause For Alarm, written 20 years before this book, which includes a cafe stop where the hero, relentlessly pursued by the Italian police and agents of a secret Fascist organisation, drinks a "tolerable Barbera" (Italian red wine). Spiffing, though when I was in a similar situation I quaffed a thoroughly decent Barolo before making good my escape over the mountains. And this novel? O, come on. Pip, pip.
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"Call for the Dead," was John LeCarre's first novel, and first George Smiley novel: it was an astonishing debut. In her Foreword to the 1961 reissue, P.D. James wrote, "The novel is a finely wrought and compelling mixture of three types of crime writing:...a thriller, the spy story...and the detective story...."

Much shorter than his great works to come, really novella length, the book works ingeniously on all three levels. We are, firstly, kept breathlessly guessing at what will come next. We are then fascinated by the spy craft, a subject LeCarre knows from his years in the intelligence-gathering business. We meet George Smiley, a character who will turn up in LeCarre's later, great spy stories, and also a handful of other characters who will turn up again too. We can, finally, follow the clues of the mystery well enough. The currently desk-bound, formerly assigned in Germany, British spy Smiley is sent to interview a just-promoted Foreign Service employee, Samuel Fennan, after an anonymous letter accuses the man of Communist leanings.

The interview goes pleasantly enough, spent in a London park watching the ducks and swans, and Smiley comes as close as he may to reassuring Fennan that his report will clear him. Nevertheless, Fennan apparently tells his wife that the interview was an ordeal, and commits suicide. The Foreign Service Officer supposedly leaves a note that reads, in part, "I cannot spend my remaining years under a cloud of disloyalty and suspicion. I realize that my career is ruined, that I am the victim of paid informers." Yet, many features of the crime scene, including an 8:30 wake up call the dead man had requested for the next morning, do not ring right to Smiley: it calls out for further investigation. This investigation will, as is frequently the case, prove dangerous to many people, including Smiley, and will result in Smiley's once again crossing paths, and swords, with an extraordinary one-time German protege of his.

The book is beautifully written, long on wit, though short on the midnight mandarin meetings that will become a mainstay of LeCarre's later works. Characters are fully rounded, and treated with a compassion that will not always survive to his later books. LeCarre also here begins by flashing us his ability to open a book with a bang: a first chapter entitled "A Brief History of George Smiley" is enough to leave us hungry for more.
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on 16 June 2016
John le Carre is fast becoming my favourite author. George Smiley IS Alec Guinness who will forever be linked to the BBC's TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Every time I read George Smiley I picture
Alec Guinness. I love the murkey world he lives in and as a retired police officer myself who worked alongside those within the secret service world find that John le Carre portrays the blurred values of such parallel entities in a way that only someone with his background could understand. If you like the novels read the recent biography. Having an understanding of the author himself only enhances the reading of his novels.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 April 2013
Been a while since I read a Le Carre and I'd forgotten just how good he is. This is a short tale, set in post war Britain and introduces George Smiley. I was hooked right from the first page and finished the story in virtually one sitting. It's a well paced page turner. Each character is deftly portrayed and I was transported back to a different age when manners, social conventions and attitudes were different. The prose just flows, never a wasted word and every scene and description is perfectly set. Although it's short, Le Carre seems to have packed a lot in; the plot kept me guessing and better than that, has whetted my appetite for a few more like this. Really enjoyed it.
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on 9 December 2009
These BBC audio adaptations of the Smiley novels are simply brilliant examples of the form. You might expect nothing less from the BBC, but even with high expectations I feel these offer a superior experience. Script, acting, production..everything is of the highest order and they are a joy to listen too.

I came to this without having read the book or seen the TV series and was completely gripped. The strength of the plot is, if anything, secondary to the great characterisation and performances. Highly recommended.
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on 26 April 2009
I last read Call for the Dead in the early 1970s when I was fourteen or fifteen. I have changed a great deal since then along with everything else, but my enjoyment of this compact spying whodunnit does not seem to have changed much in the intervening 35 years. The plot is intricate without being overcomplicated. The three murders, one attempted murder and, at the end, the death of a killer while resisting arrest are the main focus, not the characters.

The great George Smiley and his colleagues, Guillam and Mendel, are rather colourless. Elsa Fennan, a murder victim whose presence is felt throughout the book, is certainly not colourless, but bizarre. But the emphasis on action rather than characterisation is as it should be given the genre. The novel is of course well-written, though occasionally the descriptions of people and situations seemed overlong.

Part of the appeal for me is connected with the atmosphere of the familiar but dreary world of London and the home counties in the 1950s and 1960s: the trilby hats, membership of local repertory clubs and telephone numbers like Primrose 0098, alongside the more lasting landmarks of London and Whitehall. Le Carre makes this world at once mundane and sinister with the horrors of the Second World continuing to cast its shadows and the lurking threat of the then Communist block even making itself felt in respectable suburbia. This is the classic background to a Cold War spy novel which Le Carre excels at creating.

Call for the Dead was Le Carre's first published work. I read and greatly enjoyed his novels till the late 1970s, but I have found most of what he wrote afterwards heavy-going and sometimes a little portentous. The usual explanation I am given is the end of the Cold War, but the development of Le Carre's writing is also partly a reason.

The early Le Carre novels beginning with Call for the Dead should continue to be read, whether or not one shares my nostalgia for their subject-matter.
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