Back to the Beginning: Call for the Dead by John LeCarré

“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.

Under the pen name of Edward A. Grainger, David Cranmer writes the continuing adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. He is also the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books.


  1. macavity

    Read this one 50 years or so ago in the original US pb edition. Great stuff. Le Carre lost me later on, as the books got longer and longer. I prefer them short, like this one.

  2. David Cranmer

    Yeah, I do enjoy the pithy nature of these earlier novels. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (third in the series) hit a perfect stride in terms of length and plotting.

  3. Oscar Case

    I trudged through The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and didn’t think much of it. I don’t think I was ready for it.

  4. Brian Greene

    Really great piece, David. I haven’t read this and you’ve sold me on it. Heading to the beach this week and this might just be one of my reads there. Thanks.

  5. David Cranmer

    [b]Oscar[/b], I remember not appreciating LeCarre when I was younger but became a fan after watching the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy mini-series with Alec Guinness as Smiley and then became hooked on the rest of the books.
    Enjoy the beach, [b]Brian[/b]. Or, rather, save me a seat for the ride there. Sounds like a nice break this weekend.

  6. Mates

    I remember Alec Guinness making a couple of those Smiley films and remember liking them at the time.

  7. David Cranmer

    Mates, I thought Sir Alec was the definitive Smiley though to be honest I havent seen Gary Oldman in the role.

  8. randal120

    Randy Johnson here,

    I first encountered George Smiley in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and have since read several other Smiley titles, though I don’t think I’ve read this one. But it has been a few years.

    A big fan of the Bond novels, What I liked about Smiley was his every man persona. A nondescript man, the perfect spy.

  9. David Cranmer

    That’s how I always felt, Randy. With Smiley you felt you were getting some element of a real spy wheras Bond is fun (I’ve read them all) but cartoonish.

  10. Ron Scheer

    Recently saw the Gary Oldman version of TTSS, but have read that the Guinness series is superior. One critic has also argued that Le Carre does not have the personal experience and understanding of espionage he claims to base his novels on. I’ve read that Kim Philby also needs to be accounted for in any assessment of Le Carre’s fiction. I have seldom taken interest in spy novels, but your review above, the contrast with Fleming’s Bond, and TTSS have made me want to change all that.

  11. David Cranmer

    I recommend watching the Guinness version, Ron. You can find the complete mini-series on YouTube. Then, if you’re still interested, I would read this novel and Tinker Tailor. And I happened to watch a recent documentary about Le Carre where he’s rather humble about his spy origins and doesn’t play it up. At least that was my impression.

  12. Prashant C. Trikannad

    David, I started reading John Le Carré’s novels much later beginning with The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener and while I have read a couple of others since then, I have not tackled his early books like the one you reviewed here so very well. There is depth to both his style and substance. I don’t think you can go wrong with a Le Carré.

  13. David Cranmer

    Prashant, The Tailor of Panama is a work of beauty. I enjoyed the film for the most part but the book is the hands down winner. Though, just checking Wikipedia, I had forgotten the author wrote the screenplay with director John Boorman and Andrew Davies. I do remember when communism in Russia fell many critics/readers wondered if there was still a need for spy novels. What an antiquated thought now, right? I guess some individuals were so concentrating on Russia vs. America that they forgot the game is afoot everywhere. I haven’t seen The Constant Gardener starring Ralph Fiennes but will correct that soon enough.

  14. Prashant C. Trikannad

    David, as film versions go, I preferred The Constant Gardener to The Tailor of Panama notwithstanding the presence of Geoffrey Rush in the latter. The Ralph Fiennes-Rachel Weisz combo in the former works really well. The book pricks your conscience with its scary but very real tale of medical testing among poor Africans. I think you’ll like the film.

  15. David Cranmer

    Yeah, Rush always turns in a worthy performance but the film version of Tailor just seems to run out of steam in the last thirty munutes or so. Thanks, Prashant! The Constant Gardener is in my sights now.

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