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Introducing George Smiley
am 13. Juli 2005
John le Carre's _Call for the Dead_ is the book that introduced the brooding, conflicted British secret agent, George Smiley. Call for the Dead was first published in 1961. It is one of le Carre's shorter books but it is packed with all the elements that have made le Carre's subsequent Smiley novels so special: the ability to portray exquisitely the external and internal life of his characters; the ability to make the reader feel he/she is walking the dark and dangerous streets of London, Paris, Berlin, and points east; all the while writing a suspenseful novel.
The book begins with a chapter entitled "A Brief History of George Smiley". In one brief chapter we are presented with an almost fully-formed Smiley. In short order Smiley's university career, his discreet introduction into British Intelligence and his years in Germany in the 1930s and the early stages of World War II are set out. So too is his tortured marriage to the breathtakingly beautiful yet famously unfaithful Lady Ann. The first chapter ends as Smiley arrives by taxi to his office at 2:00 a.m.
The plot is straightforward. Agent Samuel Fennan has been found dead, the product of a suicide if one is to believe the signed suicide note found by his widow, Elsa Fennan. Fennan had been interviewed by the service after a typed note denouncing him for being a communist at University was sent in. Although he was assured at the end of the interview that his name would soon be cleared, Fennan's suicide note claims that his life and career were ruined by the investigation. Because Smiley was the agent that conducted the interview, and because of the internal politics of the agency (one of le Carre's specialties), Smiley was chosen to conduct the post-suicide investigation and file a report. It quickly becomes apparent to Smiley that the suicide is not quite as clear cut as it appears.
Smiley is embroiled quickly in intrigue, death, and the world of spy and counter-spy. He is presented with a jig-saw puzzle of characters including Ella Fennan, a German named Dieter (who worked for Smiley in the War), and a shifty London petty criminal. The story races to a conclusion. As with most of le Carre's work the resolution of the story is not what one would call a Hollywood ending.
The value of the book lies as much, if not more, in the introduction of Smiley and other recurring characters such as Mundt, the East German intelligence operative, and Peter Guillam. Call for the Dead is a small book in the sense that it comes in at about150 pages. But it sets the stage for virtually all of the rest of le Carre's body of work starting with the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and through the entire Smiley series. Call for the Dead is a great place to start for someone coming to le Carre for the first time or for anyone wishing to dip their toes into le Carre again. He is one of the few writers of this or any other genre worth going back for seconds, or thirds.
This edition contains a brief but valuable introduction by the marvelous P.D. James.