1961, Books, Fiction

Call for the Dead (1961) by John le Carré

I have never read le Carré before but I have seen a number of movies based on his books – at least 5 – and parts of at least two TV shows. That turns out to be a bit of a problem for a few reasons. For one, I have some idea of Smiley, one that is based much more on Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. And that idea of Smiley is of man without an internal dialogue. Alas.

SPOILERS!!! (Well, a single fairly massive one in the second last paragraph.)

At some level, I understand why a book like this launched his career, especially given a certain other British spy novelist’s books. Le Carré must have seemed to fresh, measured and just flat out realistic in relation to Fleming. (Presumably, there were others at the time, too, but I have no idea.) For whatever issues I have with this novel, it feels like it is set in a real world where spies are limited by the same everyday concerns as everyone else. Smiley, for his flaws (perhaps because of them), is refreshingly flawed, rather meek, and human. He is much more of an “anti Bond” than, say, Harry Palmer, in the sense that he seems to come from an entirely different world, a real one.

But Smiley is one of those mid-century British men that I have basically zero time for at this point. Despite his personal limitations, he thinks himself superior to a lot of people due to his culture. It indeed a good thing that this protagonist is not a superhuman, but I do wish he was slightly more likable. (And, also, not racist. Though that’s certainly realistic.) He just feels like an average joe with a too-high opinion of himself. If that’s an accurate portrayal of someone in the Service, that’s good. But I didn’t like the guy.

I found the story less compelling than (the TV and movie versions of) Tinker Tailor and, from memory, the other stories of his I’ve seen, though I haven’t seen anything else recently so I don’t know if that’s fair. It wasn’t as much of a page-turner as I was expecting and I found the denouement rather unnecessary as I knew what had happened and was sort of surprised he felt he had to literally lay it all out like it was an Agatha Christie plot or something.

I also can’t help the vague feeling of a Lady MacBeth plot contrivance. That’s not quite the appropriate reference, but there is something I find off-putting whenever a couple is involved and it turns out that…well, you get the idea from the mention of Lady MacBeth.

It hasn’t really put me in the mood to read more of his books, though I may still, especially if they’re recommended to me. I just honestly liked some of the film adaptations (and one of the TV shows) I’ve seen significantly more than I liked this.


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