Listening to David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carre on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago was fascinating. It raised questions about his life and how much of his own experiences in the British intelligence community is replicated in his novels. From the interview, like the good spy, it was difficult to ascertain what Cornwell’s life was and what was fiction. Whatever the truth, it peaked my interest and after having avoided Le Carre’s work for decades I decided to take the plunge with his first novel, CALL FOR THE DEAD.
The story begins with a description of George Smiley by his ex-wife and a few others, a character who is at the center of many of Le Carre’s books. He is described as boring, short, fat, and possessing a quiet disposition, and a person who spent a great deal of money on “really bad clothes, which hung about that squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” The perfect non-descript person who could excel as a spy.
Smiley appears unconcerned about his divorce, and as an intelligence officer, according to the narrator, his job provided him access to the mystery of human behavior and an outlet for his strong deductive reasoning abilities. Le Carre provides a great deal of background concerning Smiley’s life that provides much insight into his behavior and thought processes throughout the novel. Before World War II Smiley had been a weak student at Oxford, but was recruited anyway by the British intelligence service, which was attractive to Smiley who liked to work alone.
Smiley began his career at a German university recommending certain students for the “secret service.” After World War II he became the Minister’s Advisor on Intelligence at the Cambridge Circus. A number of years later the issue at hand was one, Samuel Arthur Fennan of the Foreign Office who committed suicide shortly after being interviewed by Smiley. It appears that Fennan may have been denounced as a member of the Communist Party, which he had been in the 1930s when the world seem to be unraveling. The central focus of the novel is the investigation into Fennan’s death. A number of important characters emerge that include Sparrow Inspector Mendel, who Smiley works with on the case; Matson, a career bureaucrat at the “Circus,” a man Smiley despises; Elsa Fennan, the widow; and Dieter Frey, who may be an East German spy master. After a number of killings and an attempt on Smiley’s life the novel becomes more interesting as the plot comes into clearer focus; was Fennan a spy, was Mrs. Fennan a spy, and if they were, what damage did their work do to British national security?
Le Carre writes in a sarcastic literary style, if one such style actually exists. His description of the mundane is entertaining as his view of mankind. Le Carre has created an amoral universe for Smiley to function in and his philosophy of life seems to meander throughout the novel. I am glad to finally discover Le Carre and I hope to continue to do so.