Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Call For the Dead, John LeCarre, Walker Publishing Company Inc, 1961, 151 pp

I am no expert on LeCarre or on spy literature as a genre, but having read four of Le Carre's books, I decided I wanted to read them all. It is at times like this that I realize anew how valuable libraries are in providing access to all of an author's works. I decided to start at the beginning with LeCarre's first book. I also don't know much about George Smiley except that he appears in several books and is always mentioned by reviewers in the same breath as John LeCarre.

Now that I've met Mr Smiley and also learned that LeCarre himself worked for British secret services branches in the 1950s and early 1960s, it is clear that this author has been successful in part because he writes what he knows. But what amazed me most is how accomplished and excellent his first novel is. He has all the skills: characterization, place, plotting, pace and not least of all, voice. Because here in Call For the Dead is that relentless underpinning of sadness and loneliness from which all the spies I've met in his books suffer. For me, as much as I am excited by the thriller aspects of the stories and as intrigued as I am by the mysteries solved, as properly horrified as I am about the dirty deeds of international politics and finance, it is the sorry loneliness, the sad betrayals and the inner uncertainties of LeCarre's spies that hook me every time.

In 1960, when Call For the Dead takes place, spy craft is somewhat of a new thing compared to the modern gadget infested milieu of espionage we see in the Bourne movies, etc. No cell phone, no internet, no high tech weapons or identification documents or disguises. George Smiley is basically a bureaucrat doing a routine job and the things he runs into are your everyday kind with pistols and crowbars. The roads in England are bad and the cars don't run very well.

Still, a suspected communist spy, whom Smiley has interviewed and pronounced harmless, turns up dead. In order to save his reputation and possibly his job, George Smiley must solve the mystery in the face of bureaucratic incompetence and denial.

In such a short novel, the author packs an enormous amount of information, action, character study and suspense. Right out of the gate, John LeCarre is a master.

(Call For the Dead is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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