“Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” That tag at the start of John LeCarré’s first espionage novel conspicuously describes the master spy, George Smiley. Call for the Dead, published in 1961 at the height of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, draws a sharp contrast between the suave 007 and the frumpy Smiley. Around the same time, Len Deighton’s unnamed spy was also published, further playing against Fleming’s popular creation, but Deighton’s protagonist (named Harry Palmer in the films) is a nerdy cool agent with gourmet skills to boot and also, like Bond, is quite successful with the ladies. LeCarré’s Smiley has no such natural gimmicks as good looks or effortless magnetism to fall back on when the chips are down.
Smiley does have two gifts that eventually tip the scales in his favor. One is his analytical mind (perhaps the greatest since Nero Wolfe, if not Sherlock Holmes) that dissects intricate spy-web evils. And the other is patience on the Methuselah scale—he studies and plans long before he leaps. Sure, you may prefer Bond in a firefight or Palmer to dine alongside at a five-star restaurant, but Smiley is the agent you would call on in a world of bureaucratic hijinks and calculating double agents that litter both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the real deal.
If Smiley has one stumbling block, it’s his unwavering devotion to his former wife, Lady Ann. She doesn’t appear in the novel, but the promiscuous ex lingers prominently over the proceedings like a ghost haunting his every room. LeCarré writes, “And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news.” Never has a writer done more to make his creation’s personal life appear so pitiful. That longing and deep sadness for Ann is also what makes Smiley so incredibly authentic on these pages, making his triumphs all the more gratifying, much more than anything you will find in Dr. No.
Smiley immerses himself into his work, taking pleasure in being an intelligence officer and putting aside his hurt for his ex. But it’s not long before he finds himself embroiled in a mystery, possibly of his own doing. Government worker Samuel Fennan, who had been anonymously accused of being a communist, committed suicide following a routine security check conducted by Smiley. Smiley’s boss Maston blames him for grilling Fennan excessively, but Smiley knows he didn’t interrogate the man beyond simple lines of questioning, and, in fact, he had let Fennan know he was in the clear. Now, because the suicide is an embarrassing detail to be swept under the rug, Smiley is being indirectly framed for the civil servant’s death. He wearily eyes his spineless boss, “You’re dangerous, Maston. You’re weak and frightened. Anyone’s neck before yours, I know. You’re looking at me that way—measuring me for the rope.”
Smiley visits Fennan’s wife, Elsa, at Maston’s encouraging, who nearly convinces Smiley that her husband was indeed driven to that point of severe depression by his meeting with Smiley. But, fate intervenes when the phone rings, and Smiley answers the call expecting it to be Maston, but instead it’s a wake-up reminder (from the dark ages, young readers, before cell phones) meant for Fennan. Why would a man planning to kill himself have requested to receive a wake-up call? Back at the office, Maston wants to wrap matters up quickly, commanding Smiley to abandon his investigation. Then, a letter from the deceased is delivered to Smiley asking the agent for another meeting, because he has information on a possible spy. Smiley attaches his resignation to Fennan’s letter and forwards it to his boss. Smiley, with the help of a retired detective named Mendel, continues pulling threads to locate those responsible for Fennan’s murder.
Call for the Dead is a perfect primer for readers wanting to enter LeCarré’s cloak-and-dagger world. This debut novel introduces characters that pop up in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the later “Karla Trilogy.” At around 150 pages, it is a swift read, whetting one’s appetites for the master’s later grand slams like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
SPOILER ALERT: This book has one of my favorite endings in the LeCarré canon, when Smiley confronts the killer, coincidently an old friend of his, and has to kill him. A remorseful Smiley later ponders:
“Dieter was dead, and he had killed him. The broken fingers of his right hand, the stiffness of his body and the sickening headache, the nausea of guilt, all testified to this. And Dieter had let him do it, had not fired the gun, had remembered their friendship when Smiley had not. They had fought in a cloud, in the rising steam of the river, in a clearing in a timeless forest: they had met, two friends rejoined, and fought like beasts. Dieter had remembered and Smiley had not.”
Damn powerful storytelling with a robust social conscience. What an absolute pleasure to read.
George Smiley continued as a major character in A Murder of Quality, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People. He was also a supporting character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, and his final bow was 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. Though his creator, John LeCarré, is still going strong with the most recent novel, A Delicate Truth (2013), and a film version of another modern classic from the noted writer, A Most Wanted Man, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams has just been released.
Watch the trailer for A Most Wanted Man.