“Call for the Dead” by John le Carré (published by Penguin Books)

Telephone sets alarm bells ringing

People who have enough spare time to enjoy themselves ranking an author’s books – and you’d need to have read all 26 of John Le Carré’s to do so – don’t often include this one among the very best. But it still fares well and, importantly, was the launch pad in 1961 for both the tyro novelist and his spy George Smiley, who went on to become the most famous of le Carré's recurring characters.
22. October 2023 6:35

Smiley makes rather an inauspicious debut though. Immediately, we learn that his wife of two years, Lady Ann Sercomb, described him to her Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary and left him for a Cuban motor racing driver. As if that’s not enough,  le Carré offers this portrayal: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

Nonetheless, Smiley is a career intelligence officer with “The Circus”, the British overseas intelligence agency so-called because of its location in Cambridge Circus, London. And his work there is strong enough to overcome his physical and other shortcomings. Fiction-wise, he went on from “Call for the Dead” to be a central character in the novels “A Murder of Quality” (1962), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1974), “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977) and “Smiley’s People” (1979), and a supporting character in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1963), “The Looking Glass War” (1965), “The Secret Pilgrim” (1991) and “A Legacy of Spies” (2017).

Some of these nine titles appear in those subjective lists of Le Carré’s best, and on top of that Smiley has had a fantastic film career, being played by none less than the talented and untoad-like Rupert Davies, Alec Guinness, James Mason, George Cole, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Peter Vaughan and Simon Russell Beale.

This stirs our memory at The Budapest Times because upon reading “Call for the Dead” we now realise that we once watched the 1966 film version with James Mason and Simone Signoret, but it had been retitled “The Deadly Affair”, so we never realised it was actually “Call for the Dead”. (Film companies love this prerogative; they paid good money.)

Back to the book, now reissued as part of Penguin’s new Crime and Espionage Series. Smiley has been given the task of interviewing Samuel Fennan, a senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, after an anonymous letter declared Fennan had been a Communist Party member at Oxford University 24 years ago.

Well, that was the great honeymoon period of university communism, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about that, and people change, but now there’s this thing called the Cold War on and Fennan’s recent promotion gives him access to highly secret information. The letter has to be followed up and Smiley gets the job.

He says the interview was friendly and he more or less assured Fennan it was a formality and not to worry. Although the interview was a strictly routine affair, Fennan had been in a bit of a state, so Smiley told him he would likely be cleared.

Why then does Fennan apparently commit suicide, shooting himself through the temple at point-blank range with a small French pistol that is found beneath the body? All the circumstances are consistent with suicide and he left a typewritten signed suicide note. But the death causes consternation in high places and Smiley is sent to see the widow Elsa at her home in Walliston, Surrey.

According to Elsa though, her husband had been deeply upset by the interview, desperate, almost incoherent. He had collapsed in a chair and she gave him a sedative and sent him to bed. While Smiley is there the Fennans’ phone rings and he answers it because he is expecting a call. But It is a wake-up call from the Walliston exchange for one of the Fennans. Smiley asks the exchange who booked it and discovers it was Samuel Fennan. Why would a suicide have booked this call? And why would Elsa have told him she booked it for herself. This lie throws her into suspicion and raises the spectre of murder.

There are other unusual circumstances. Fennan had made himself a cup of cocoa shortly before his death but had not drunk it. He had supposedly typed his note upstairs then gone down and shot himself in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. The note was beside the body. He seldom typed and if he did write the note, why would he come down to shoot himself?

Forensic investigation shows the anonymous note and the suicide note were both written on Fennan’s typewriter, but by diifferent people, a fact ascertained by analysis of the pressure exerted on the typewriter keys. Other peculiarities arise. The case hots up and someone tries to kill Smiley. Now we have a mystery, a death, a book on our hands. Read on.

Le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole on the south coast of England in 1931, and, if we’ve got this right, he was recruited by MI5, the British domestic Security Service, while still in college and began spying on leftist groups that might have Soviet associations.

He eventually joined the agency full-time, becoming an officer in 1958, and as such he ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped phone lines and effected break-ins. Here, another spy entered the picture. John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, a thriller writer himself who also worked for MI5 and encouraged Cornwell to write. Cornwell duly began moonlighting as a novelist while remaining an active officer, and “Call for the Dead” and “A Murder of Quality” followed.

Bingham had long been said to be the inspiration for George Smiley, and in 1999 le Carré confirmed this, going further in 2000 by writing in an introduction to a reissue of one of Bingham’s novels: “He had been one of two men who had gone into the making of George Smiley. Nobody who knew John and the work he was doing could have missed the description of Smiley in my first novel.”

There is a reason that David Cornwell adopted the seemingly popular practice among writers of taking a pen name. In his case he became John le Carré (le Carré is French for “the Square”) because Foreign Office staff were forbidden to publish in their own names. He later transferred to MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, but after the success of those first two espionage books in 1961 and 1962 he shifted his career entirely to writing. The third, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, brought him international fame.

Oh, what tangled webs some of these espionage writers weave. Le Carré is regarded as one of the world’s most respected authors of spy fiction, but in “Call for the Dead”, after the suicide-cum-murder, another couple of murders, a beating or two and the introduction of an East German spy angle, things started to get a bit involved and it all got a bit murky.

However, very thoughtfully, George Smiley decided that he needed to clear his head too, and so he sat down and wrote his own summary of events so far under the heading “What do we know?” Then, when it was all over, he gave an ever more detailed account to his superiors.

These were very helpful.

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