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John le Carré


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This was le Carré's (David Cornwell's) first novel. In his foreword he explains how he came to write it, inspired by his experience working in MI5 and MI6. He used le Carré as a pen name because serving intelligence officers were not allowed to publish under their own names.

This debut fiction is essentially a crime novel with an intelligence background. Its central character is George Smiley, an intelligence officer who retires in the course of the story. Smiley was to figure in many of le Carré's later novels, but already he is a complex character preoccupied by moral questions. He has been deserted by his unfaithful wife, Ann; it is interesting that this was also the name of le Carre's former wife, as he mentions in the foreword.

Smiley had been sent to interview an academic named Fennan because of an anonymous letter alleging that Fennan had been a Communist Party member while at Oxford. Smiley had concluded that there was no reason to suspect the man of being a security risk and—contrary to the rules - had told him as much unofficially. But that same evening Fennan shot himself.

Smiley is now sent to Fennan's home in Surrey to speak to his widow and try to discover the reason for the man's suicide. Was he in fact a traitor after all? Some discrepancies in the story lead Smiley to suspect that this was a case of murder, and after handing in his resignation he embarks on an investigation, assisted by a policeman, Mendel, with whom he has made friends (and who also decides to retire).

It turns out that Fennan was indeed murdered, for reasons that are connected with Smiley's own past. Justice is eventually done, in a sense, but in a morally ambiguous manner

Admirers of le Carré's writing will certainly want to read this book, but it is less complex than later novels in the sequence and there are signs that the author was still learning his trade: notably the first chapter, which bears the title 'A Brief History of George Smiley' and simply describes the central character's background quite baldly. Later he would have given this information more artfully.

28 December 2010

%T Call for the Dead
%A John le Carré
%I Hodder & Stoughton
%C London
%D 1961
%G ISBN 0-340-733640-0
%P xii + 159pp
%K fiction
%O foreword by the author

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