Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

Something a little different from me today. Less a review as such, more a sequence of observations on the early George Smiley novels from John le Carré. I’ve been reading (and in some cases re-reading) them recently, broadly in chronological order, although I’ve skipped The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a classic Cold War spy thriller which I read back in 2018.

For those of you unfamiliar with le Carré’s work, George Smiley is a career intelligence officer within the British overseas intelligence agency, commonly known as ‘the Circus’ due to its base in London’s Cambridge Circus. His first appearance comes in Call for the Dead (1961), a very enjoyable novella that serves as a good introduction to Smiley and certain elements of his backstory – in particular, the troublesome nature of his relationship with flighty ex-wife, Ann.

Following a routine security check by Smiley, Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, apparently commits suicide, triggering a meeting between Smiley and Maston, the Circus’s head. All too soon, Smiley realises he is being set up to take the blame for Fennan’s death, something he finds both troubling and suspicious, particularly as his interview with the civil servant had ended quite amicably.

The arrival of a letter from Fennan to Smiley, posted shortly before the man’s death, adds to the mystery, suggesting that Fennan had something pressing to pass on to Smiley following their initial meeting. When Smiley is warned off the case by Maston, he begins his own investigation into Fennan’s network, bringing him into contact with the East Germans and their agents.

Le Carré clearly has things to say here about the intelligence agencies, the way they use people as pawns on a chessboard, illustrating a lack of humanity at the heart of the system. In this scene, Fennan’s widow is expressing her views to Smiley, not holding back in her perceptions of the institution.

The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. (pp. 20-21, Call for the Dead)

The third book in the series, The Looking Glass War is particularly strong on this theme – the way that agents can end up as collateral, ultimately viewed as expendable in the cut-and-thrust of the game.

The descriptive passages are excellent, something I had completely forgotten about until I went back to the first book. Moreover, there are some marvellous touches of humour in le Carré’s writing, another aspect of his craft that had temporarily slipped my mind.

The Fountain Café (Proprietor Miss Gloria Adam) was all Tudor and horse brasses and local honey at sixpence more than anywhere else. Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as ‘My Friends’. Miss Adam did not do business with friends, but simply robbed them, which somehow added to the illusion of genteel amateurism which Miss Adam was so anxious to preserve. (p. 26, Call for the Dead)

While Call for the Dead might not be le Carré’s most polished novel, it is still highly compelling and convincing. A well-crafted literary spy novel with some memorable moments of tension along the way. Plus, it’s a great introduction to Smiley with his quiet, perceptive disposition and expensive yet ill-fitting clothes! As something of a segue into the second novel in the series, here’s a description of the man himself, taken from a passage near the beginning of book two.

‘Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.’

Well, he looked like a frog, right enough. Short and stubby, round spectacles with thick lenses that made his eyes big. And his clothes were odd. Expensive, mind, you could see that. But his jacket seemed to drape where there wasn’t any room for drape. What did surprise Rigby was his shyness. Rigby had expected someone a little brash, a little too smooth for Carne, whereas Smiley had an earnest formality which appealed to Rigby’s conservative taste. (p. 28, A Murder of Quality)

A Murder of Quality (1962) is somewhat atypical in style for a le Carré. In short, it is a murder mystery as opposed to a spy novel, the type of detective story that wouldn’t be entirely out of place amongst the British Library Crime Classics. The book can also be viewed as a barbed commentary on the English class system – in particular public boarding schools with their cruelty and elitist attitudes.

As the novel opens, Smiley is contacted by a former colleague, Ailsa Brimley (aka Brim), who now runs a small journal, The Christian Voice. Ailsa is worried about a letter she has received from a loyal subscriber, Stella Rode, in which Rode claims that her husband intends to kill her. The fact that the Rode family have supported the Voice for several years only adds to Ailsa’s feelings of responsibility towards Stella. Consequently, Ailsa asks Smiley to investigate what’s behind the letter before she alerts the police.

When Smiley contacts Carne, the public school where Stella’s husband works, he discovers that the murder has already been committed. All the more reason for Smiley to pay a visit to the school to uncover the events surrounding Stella’s death…

What le Carré captures so brilliantly here is the snobbishness that exists within the school environment, the internal politics between the masters and, perhaps more tellingly, between their wives. It seems that Stella Rode did not conform to Carne’s traditional conventions and high standards. In short, she had lowered the tone with her doyleys and china ducks, much to Shane Hecht’s dismay.

‘…Stella Rode was such a nice person, I always thought…and so unusual. She did such clever things with the same dress…But she had such curious friends. All for Hans the woodcutter and Pedro the fisherman, if you know what I mean.’

‘What is she popular at Carne?’

Shane Hecht laughed gently: ‘No one is popular at Carne…but she wasn’t easy to like…She would wear black crêpe on Sundays…Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p. 93, A Murder of Quality)

There is some nice development of Smiley’s character in this book, with the retired intelligence office emerging as a man with a conscience, someone who can find it difficult to reconcile the means with the end. He also knows the value of being able to assimilate, to blend into the background without being noticed. His quiet, perceptive manner coupled with an innate insight into human nature and motivation makes him an excellent spy – a keen observer of people, alert to signs of danger and duplicity. His understated investigative style is a pleasure to see in action, laying some of the groundwork for the subsequent novels.

This is a very well-written, satisfying mystery with just enough intrigue to keep the reader interested – needless to say, there is more to the case than meets the eye. Moreover, it’s a darkly humorous book – worth reading for the satirical sideswipes at the upper classes, particularly the public-school set.

The George Smiley novels are published by Penguin; personal copies.

32 thoughts on “Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

  1. gertloveday

    An interesting man. I like these George Smiley books, but my favourite of his is the one closer to his own life, A Perfect Spy. I believe there is a TV version of this that I haven’t yet managed o locate. Have you seen it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m familiar with the book, but not the TV adaptation – something to see out, perhaps! You’re right in saying that A Perfect Spy was inspired by elements of le Carre’s life, especially the relationship with his father. A ‘difficult’ man by all accounts…

      Reply
  2. fitzfitz

    … Michael Jayston’s readings of the Smiley books are breathtakingly good – they infuse the best of Smiley with new life … and Connie … poor Connie .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve been dabbling with one or two audiobooks recently, so I may well seek them out. Connie’s a wonderful character, isn’t she? I’m up to Tinker, Tailor now, the first novel in the Karla trilogy…

      Reply
      1. fitzfitz

        … yes – Connie is a sensationally sympathetically drawn second level character … she eventually returns, finally in The Honourable Schoolboy. Keep going ! Chronologically .

        Reply
        1. Brian Joseph

          I have been meaning to read Le Carre and these books for a long time. I know that I would like them. You list so many things here that makes the books sound so good.

          I would go in order too.

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Oh, they’re excellent. I can’t recommend them highly enough. He’s one of those authors that every avid reader should try at some point in their life to see how they get on!

            Reply
      2. Bob Pyper

        Enjoyed your sharp observations, as always, Jacqui. I always liked the way le Carre established the key features of Smiley’s personality in these novels, and then developed these features and characteristics in the Karla trilogy. PS – on audio books: I’ve just completed listening to Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. I recall that you enjoyed the novels. As with my periodic re-reading of the series, I found that the audio version uncovered elements I had previously not fully appreciated. If you have time, I would strongly recommend.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks, Bob. That’s very kind of you to say. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with the Karla trilogy, now that I’ve read TTSS. You’re also making a very strong case for the audio books of this series, particularly as a way of enriching the reading experience. Maybe I should try the audio version of TTSS, just to see how it complements the book!

          Reply
  3. 1streading

    I wish I had thought of reading them in order, though, to be fair, I haven’t read that many – like you (I think) I started with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I have collected quite a few on Kindle though, and I quite fancy reading these early ones now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s worth going back to the early ones, just to get more of a ‘feel’ for Smiley as a character. There’s a short autobiography of him at the beginning of Call for the Dead, a sort of potted history of his career with the Service over the years…

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    It’s such a pleasure to read this about an author and books that have been a part of my life for many years and I will always enjoy going back to. And what a marvelous creation George Smiley is, someone who can disappear into the background but with those eyes that see under the skin of things. You’ve brought out some of what makes Le Carré so satisfying to read. I miss that perceptive voice commenting on the world.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Jule – that’s so kind of you to say. Yes, Smiley’s understated manner and ability to blend into the background ‘wallpaper’ really come through in these early novels. I miss him too, hence my decision to go back to the books, almost as a way of ‘discovering’ him again…

      Reply
  5. Cathy746books

    I haven’t read any of the Smiley books Jacqui, but have been tempted recently to go for Tinker Tailor as we’ve been watching Frnch spy drama The Bureau and I am loving anything spy related!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, someone else recommended The Bureau to me recently (as part of a conversation about Spiral), so I’ll have to take a look. Good to hear you are enjoying it!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Thank you for these thoughts Jacqui. I have never read le Carre. However a friend sent me a couple just before Christmas, one of which is The Looking Glass War. I know it’s not the first Smiley book but I shall probably start with thst at some point. I also really like the sound of A Murder of Quality.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – I remember you mentioning it a few weeks ago. That should be fine as any of the first five Smileys (TLGW is number 4) could be read as a standalone. It’s probably not the strongest novel in the series, but even so there’s still much to enjoy. (e.g. the plot is very propulsive, especially towards the end!)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love the Alec Guinness TV series too. He’s just perfect in the role of Smiley. Thanks for the reminder, Stu. I have TTSS on DVD, so it’s probably time for another watch!

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I haven’t read anything by le Carre and clearly have a lot of making up to do, the Smiley books sound fascinating, I love a character who blends into the background!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s a very interesting chap, the sort of watchful character who sees and processes things that others might miss – and le Carre does a fine job in making him seem so understated, especially given the enormity of what’s at stake.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. buriedinprint

    He’s someone that I’d not thought I’d be interested in, until I heard an interview with Eleanor Wachtel as part of the CBC series, Writers & Company (which I highly recommend, especially if you’re equally interested in writers’ lives and relationships, as well as their writing process, in the context of -usually, anyway- a new release or a renowned backlist title. Back in the day, I didn’t think of him any differently than Deighton and Forsyth and Ludlum, but now I see the differences, even though I’ve only read one, since. Both of these sound like books I’d enjoy too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thanks for that tip. I’ll check it out. He’s a fascinating writer, not least because of his experiences over the years which clearly informed the books. Both of these books are very approachable and enjoyable, good routes in if you ever fancy returning to his work…

      Reply
  10. Pingback: “…he knew his enemy.” #johnlecarré #georgesmiley | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.