After a routine security check by George Smiley, civil servant Samuel Fennan apparently kills himself. When Smiley finds Circus head Maston is trying to blame him for the man's death, he begins his own investigation, meeting with Fennan's widow to find out what could have led him to such desperation. But on the very day that Smiley is ordered off the enquiry he receives an urgent letter from the dead man. Do the East Germans - and their agents - know more about this man's death than the Circus previously imagined?
Over the summer, along with reviewing new novels, I’m also planning to review some of my favourites starting with John Le Carre’s Call For The Dead. Although Le Carre is arguably the greatest spy novelist of all time his first two novels, Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, fit more closely within the crime/mystery genre. It was only after the release of Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, that he became known as a writer of espionage novels.
Call For The Dead was released in the same year as Thunderball, the tenth James Bond, and it’s hard to imagine two more opposite characters than James Bond and George Smiley. One an all action figure, the other, in Le Carre’s unflattering opening description of George Smiley’s wedding, a bullfrog who had ‘waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince’. Despite this less than flattering introduction, George Smiley has not only endured, he’s become one of the greatest literary characters of all time.
After an introductory first chapter the story begins in earnest in chapter two with George Smiley being summoned to the Cambridge Circus at 2am to explain why Samuel Arthur Fennan, a career civil servant whom Smiley had interviewed a few days earlier, had committed suicide. Smiley has no explanation, other than the fact that Fennan’s suicide note doesn’t tally with his recollection of the meeting, and he is sent to Fennan’s home in Surrey to investigate. Smiley very quickly senses something is wrong and after being ordered to not investigate any further, he resigns and continues the investigation privately. Joining Smiley in his investigation are two familiar characters, Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, in whom he both trusts and you can see the beginnings of the loyalty he has towards both of them. I’m a huge fan of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spytelevision series and one of the few criticisms I have of it is that the character of Mendel is condensed. In Call For The Deadyou learn more of his past and why he’s someone who Smiley would trust.
At 160 pages Call For The Dead is probably the shortest of all the John Le Carre novels, it is still however an interesting read for anyone who likes a mystery novel in which the brain is more important than brawn or someone who just wants to know where it all began for George Smiley and John Le Carre.
A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre
Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, has retired to his family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London are to be scrutinised by a generation with no memory of the Cold War. Somebody must be made to pay for innocent blood once spilt in the name of the greater good.
George Smiley, cold war warrior for “the Circus” (ie MI6), first appeared in 1961 in Call for the Dead. and was the character who established John leCarré as one of the masters of the cold war spy genre. Smiley appeared in seven books between 1961 and 1979. It seemed, as the cold war was coming to a close, so too was Smiley’s work and leCarré moved on, returning briefly to Smiley’s world in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. With Russia well and truly back in the news and spycraft, arguably, not what it once was, it seems like the perfect time for leCarré to once again revisit this old stomping ground.
A Legacy of Spies focuses around Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s people. At the start of the novel he is living a quiet retired life on a farm in his native France. But the past is never far away and he is called back to England to answer for his part in the death of two people at the Berlin Wall many years before. The deaths themselves were part of an operation called Windfall, one that Smiley and his boss, Control, kept from their superiors for a very real fear of a mole within the organisation.
In two timeframes, A Legacy of Spies tells the story of Windfall and Guillam’s often unwitting part in the tragedy. At the same time he tries not to tell the modern day investigators the whole story of how the operation came about and who it involved. This technique allows leCarré to have his cake and eat it. He is able to tell a classic cold war spy story but wrap it in a modern day morality play as the consequences of that operation play out in the next generation.
A Legacy of Spies builds heavily on leCarré’s world and it would help to be familiar with all of the side stories and back stories of the characters, developed over the earlier Smiley books. But it has been a while between instalments and leCarré does enough to describe and flag those events to keep the current story flowing. And the amount of unspoken backstory gives the novel a much greater depth than just the simple tale may have had.
Some of leCarré’s more recent output has been a little on the polemical side. But in A Legacy of Spies he returns to ground that allows for much more grey. The question is how far the government and its agents should go for the common good. At the time the decisions being made seemed to be those of the very future of civilisation, but in the hindsight of the novel, and knowledge of what has come after, there is a real question of whether any of those actions were worth the cost.