Title: Call for the Dead
Author: John Le Carré
Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books
- Smiley, George (Fictitious character)–Fiction.
- Intelligence officers–Fiction.
- Cold War–Fiction.
Date Posted: December 1, 2016
Review by John Crace
When Lady Ann ran away with a Cuban racing driver just two years after getting married, a part of George Smiley died. The part that survived was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer–a job that provided him with colleagues as unmemorably short, fat and badly dressed as himself. He had joined the Service in 1928 whilst up at Oxford reading the minor German poets and had spent much of the pre-war period at a German university assessing agent potential.
During the war he had grown a moustache, having acquired a talent for disguise, but now that he had entered middle age without ever being young, he found himself working for Maston, a career man in search of a K. He was now too old to go abroad, which was how he came to find himself being summoned to Cambridge Circus one morning in January.
“Bad show, Smiley,” said Maston. “That chap Sam Fennan you were asked to security check last week. He’s committed suicide. There’s got to be an enquiry, but don’t rock the boat. We can’t have a word of this leaked to the Press.”
He’s showing too much cuff, Smiley observed as Maston left the room. His deliberations were interrupted by Peter Guillam. “What did you make of Fennan?”
“A decent cove. A Jew obviously, but reasonable nonetheless. Whoever denounced him was right: he had been a member of the Party in the 30s, but he’s one of us now. I as good as told him there was nothing to worry about over one of those new-fangled espresso thingies that cost a shilling. So his suicide is very rum.”
Smiley walked slowly along Merridale Lane in Walliston before knocking at number 15. The door was answered by Elsa Fennan. She, too, was obviously a Jew, a fierce woman in her 50s with her hair cut short and dyed to the colour of nicotine.
“Come in,” she said, blankly. Smiley entered, his trademark lugubriousness etched on his face. “I was out last night at the theatre and I came back to find my husband had shot himself having left a suicide note.”
“That must have been distressing,” Smiley replied with typical understatement.
“Indeed, I couldn’t sleep. But then I am an insomniac.”
The phone rang. “I’ll get that,” Smiley said. “It’s probably for me, even though I don’t live here.”
“It’s the 8.30 morning alarm call you requested,” said the operator.
“Oh, yes, I remember ordering that now,” Elsa smiled.
Smiley wandered even more slowly than usual towards the police station, aware that thanks to the fortuitously improbable piece of plotting of him answering the phone he had managed to expose a network of deceit. It was clear Elsa had not asked for the alarm call, so it could only have been Sam. Yet why would someone who was planning to commit suicide do that? He must have been murdered.
“There’s a number of things that don’t add up,” he said to Sergeant Mendel.
“Well, you can count on me, Sir,” Mendel replied. “I’m the salt-of-the-earth copper who doesn’t fall for the Establishment line. I’ve made some enquiries myself and found that Mrs. Fennan always met another man at the theatre on the first Tuesday of the month.”
Smiley walked so slowly back to Mrs. Fennan’s that he barely appeared to be moving. “I’m curious about that phone call,” he enquired.
“I thought you might be,” Mrs. Fennan laughed nervously. “I don’t know why I lied to you about it. It wasn’t an alarm call. It was to remind me to do something I’ve already forgotten about.”
In later books Smiley might have wondered why Elsa could not have come up with a more convincing second explanation having had so long to prepare one, but for now he sat back in the car and recited the poems of Herman Hesse while Mendel drove him to his Chelsea flat. He noticed a light on in the hall and rang the bell. A strange man answered the door. “Wrong number, I’m afraid,” he said, making his excuses and leaving. He had been moments from being killed. He was a worried man. But not as worried as the reader who was wondering why on earth the assassin didn’t just run after George and top him, rather than allowing him to walk away at snail’s pace.
He shuffled into the Circus to find Maston eager to ensure the suicide verdict was upheld. Suddenly, Smiley felt very tired from all his plodding. He sat down to write his resignation letter.
“It’s alright Guvnor,” Mendel smiled. “I’ve traced the number plate of one of the cars outside your flat. It belonged to a local villain in Battersea. He’s now been killed, but luckily he spilled the beans to me first. He had an arrangement to lend the car to the East German Trade delegation in Highgate.”
Smiley frowned. It could only mean that his old student Dieter Frey was involved. But why had he not left the country once he had killed Fennan? Surely Fennan’s secrets would have died with him. As he was pondering these things, he was struck from behind by the butt of a pistol and lapsed into unconsciousness for three weeks. Still, at least his stay in hospital allowed him to recap the main elements of the plot, which even in a comparatively short book had already become hopelessly convoluted. There was Sam Fennan, Elsa Fennan…
There was a knock on the door and Guillam entered. “It’s a rum do,” he mused. “It turns out the secrets Sam was handing over to Elsa to hand over to Dieter at the theatre weren’t really classified secrets after all.”
Smiley crawled from his bed. “It’s possible we’ve been looking at this from the wrong angle all along,” he said, briefly stirring himself from a wistful reverie of Goethe and Lady Ann.
“You don’t say,” Mendel muttered. “Who would have thought it?”
“It’s time for some tradecraft,” he exclaimed while writing a message in a distinctive European script. “That should bring the pigeons home to roost.”
Elsa and Dieter took their seats next to one another at the Hammersmith Palladium while Smiley, Mendel and Guillam observed them from above. “They’ve just realised that neither of them set up this meeting,” Smiley said, as Elsa slumped in her seat. “Quick, after Dieter. He’s killed Elsa.”
His Zimmer frame in overdrive, Smiley sprinted after Dieter and cornered him by the Thames. “So?” Smiley said. “So?” Dieter replied, before allowing the much older, much weaker man push him into the river.
Smiley sat down, exhausted and overwhelmed by a need to recap in case some readers still hadn’t quite gathered what was going on. And this time he would make it even easier for them by writing them in bullet points. 1. It was Elsa who was the spy. 2. Sam had become suspicious and was going to denounce her. 3. Dieter…
“Well I’m glad that’s all cleared up without the Press being involved,” cried Maston cheerily. “I take it we can tear up your resignation letter?”
On balance Smiley thought he could. It was true there had been a number of rough edges. Some of the plotting had rather stretched credulity and the characterisation had been thinner than he hoped. But it was a more than decent start and his career as Alec Guinness was under way.