Call for the Dead

This is le Carre’s first book and it introduces George Smiley to the world. I happened to snag it from a used book store a few weeks back (gosh it was thrilling to spy it in the smelly racks of old paperbacks). I’ve decided to forego seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the screen until I’ve read it. I’m reading the Smiley books in order and Tinker is book three.

I finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few months back, which featured Smiley momentarily, but is not considered part of the Smiley books. In order, the Smiley books are Call for the Dead; A Murder of Quality; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. The last three are Kindle ebooks, so they’re easy to grab. I’ll have to dig up A Murder of Quality on my own or bite the bullet and order a paperback version. It will be so much more fun to happen across it in a used bookstore, but I doubt I’ll have the patience.

This is George Smiley, as described by a colleague:

Odd little beggar, Smiley was. Reminded Mendel of a fat boy he’d played football with at school. Couldn’t run, couldn’t kick, blind as a bat but played like hell, never satisfied till he got himself torn to bits. Used to box, too. Came in wide open, swinging his arms about: got himself half killed before the referee stopped it. Clever bloke, too. (pg. 76, Bantam Paperback)

It’s a classic character: not pretty but get’s stuff done. A lot of stuff.


We catch him as he’s getting older. Having spent a lifetime in the field, he’s now middle-aged and working in Cold War London. He’s a cynical, old school type, but his sentiments are prescient. Here’s him reflecting:

… The murder had taken place just in time to catch today’s papers and mercifully too late for last night’s news broadcast. What would this be? “Maniac killer in theatre”? “Death-lock murder – woman named”? He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before: it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favor of the mass. When had mass philosophies ever brought benefit or wisdom? Dieter cared nothing for human life: dreamed only of armies of faceless men bound by their lowest common denominators; he wanted to shape the world as if it were a tree, cutting off what did not fit in the regular image; for this he fashioned blank, soulless automatons like Mundt. Mundt was faceless like Dieter’s army, a trained killer born of the finest killer breed. (pg. 130, Bantam Paperback)

How can you not like Smiley? We may disagree with his sentiments, but it’s the first book so let the character unfold before reaching any broad conclusions. It does make evident the passions that the Cold War stoked.

It’s a short read (148 pages) and worth it. I have a feeling that it will set me up nicely to get a deeper understanding of the master spy as I read the next four books. It would have certainly helped me had I read it before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It would have set the scene and introduced me to Mundt, a key foil of Smiley’s.

Long live the British spy novel!