Friday 15 February 2013

John le Carré's Debut Novel, Call for the Dead (1961), in The le Carré Omnibus (Gollancz, 1964)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

If you've read the previous post, you'll know that I chose this next book not because I wanted to blog about it – although, clearly, that is what I'm about to do here – but because I wanted to read it (and if you're baffled as to what exactly the distinction is there, go read that post).

It's a first printing of The le Carré Omnibus, published by Victor Gollancz in 1964 (and published as The Incongruous Spy in the US the same year). Now, if you've been following Existential Ennui for a few years – unlikely, I know, but there might be one or two of you – you might recall my having blogged about this one before, when I bought it back in 2010; it's a collection of John le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), both of which star the author's signature lead, British Intelligence operative George Smiley. That it's taken me well over two years to get round to reading the bloody thing is a terrifically apposite example of how blogging about books can sometimes keep you from reading them, or at least those books you'd probably otherwise have read sooner; I made my way through – and adored – le Carré's later Karla Trilogy – which also, of course, features Smiley – in 2010 and 2011, and yet despite subsequently plucking The le Carré Omnibus from my shelves on more than one occasion, there always seemed to be some other book demanding my attention ahead of it.

Until, that is, I decided to mend my ways a couple of weeks ago and simply choose from the many unread books on my shelves the ones I most wanted to read, rather than the ones I thought would make for a good blog post. And this was the one I kept coming back to – and while neither of the novels within is of the same stature or on the same scale – literary or geographically – as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its two sequels (the third of which, like Tinker, is slowly edging towards the big screen), they are both elegantly written, quietly compelling pieces of, respectively, spy fiction and crime fiction.

In fact, that's one of the interesting things about having the two novels together in this volume: they're quite different in nature – at least, on the surface. Call for the Dead – not only le Carré's debut but Smiley's as well, not to mention that of his occasional sidekick, Peter Guillam – sees Smiley and Inspector Mendel of Scotland Yard investigating the apparent suicide of a civil servant whom Smiley had recently interviewed about his communist background (and who had left a note blaming Smiley for his death), and involves East German agents, multiple killings and even an attempt on Smiley's life. A Murder of Quality, on the other hand, is essentially a murder mystery, a whodunnit, and finds Smiley decamping to a rustic public school at the behest of an old intelligence colleague to ascertain who killed the wife of one of the schoolmasters.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that Call for the Dead is a kind of whodunnit too, although I guess that's true of a lot of spy thrillers: you often find there's a mysterious death involved. It also features the first of Smiley's many retirements from The Circus (the colloquial name for MI6), starts with a wonderful precis of his early life, wartime exploits and doomed marriage – to the wayward Ann, who would become so pivotal in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – and boasts a brilliant opening line, which sets the tenor not only for this novel but for later books as well, at least as regards Smiley's emotional travails: 

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.

Mind you, A Murder of Quality can boast for its part one of the best descriptions of Smiley I've come across, courtesy of Mendel's boss at Scotland Yard, Ben Sparrow... but I think I'll save that for the next post.


  1. Great review Nick - On re-reading CALL FOR THE DEAD and SPY CHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD in close succession recently, what struck me was the extent to which the follow on from each other - SPY is in fact a sequel and picks up a lot of plot and characters from the DEAD.

  2. Ah, now that's interesting – I think I might (finally; I've been saving it up) read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold next, so thanks for that, Sergio. By the way, I noted you'd reviewed Call for the Dead in 2011 – that fine review, for anyone reading, accompanied by a handy George Smiley checklist.

  3. Thanks for the link, very kind of you. Really look forward to reading your post on SPY WHO CAME IN FORM THE COLD. Personally I think it still holds up very well indeed.

  4. Though I think 'Tinker...' is Le Carre's best novel, I think 'The Spy...' is the better thriller. It also has a superb, deeply believable, closing line.

    By better thriller I mean by way of the diabolical plan set up by MI6 - but enough, if you've not read it. Smiley has very small roles in this one and the excellent novel that follows, 'The Looking Glass War', which is almost an anti-thriller.

  5. I'm partway through Spy, Chris, so I'm still uncovering The Circus' diabolical plan... but thus far, it does seem pretty bloody diabolical!