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.