As I begin the last quarter of a year in which I have spent a lot of time slogging through a lot of big, bloated genre novels and their big, bloated sequels, there is something tonic and refreshing about a short, tightly plotted mid-20th century number like this one that very likely renders my enjoyment entirely out of proportion to the actual book's quality.
But perhaps not.
George Smiley has become an iconic character, at least in my little corner of the world, even without my ever having encountered him directly and consciously before now.* Tom Ripley was much the same for me, until my fangirl passion for Wim Wenders and Bruno Ganz led me to discover The American Friend, which featured Dennis Hopper as Ripley, a Ripley to which no other performance shall ever measure up, and I proceeded to gobble up all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels in quick succession, to rush to acquire them in collectible hardcover, the better to gloat over them in my barrister bookcase...
I suspect I'll be doing the same with John le Carre, too.
Call for the Dead spends a lot of its time sort of slyly masquerading as a cozy mystery, with Smiley, ordinarily an operative for the British Secret Service in a very low key sort of way, filling the amateur detective role. A Foreign Office employee whom Smiley interviewed pro forma after an anonymous letter had identified the man as a former Communist has overreacted to said interview and killed himself in a fit of despair -- or has he? As the mystery unravels and a trail of bodies is found, a dashing and charismatic frenemy from Smiley's past surfaces. Watching Smiley sort all of this out in his methodical, thoughtful, occultly brilliant way is a genuine pleasure; so is watching his friends, one in the police and one fellow spy.
But it is the grieving widow who steals the show, as such. Elsa Feenan, Holocaust survivor, pragmatist, broken yet still strong, is a riveting figure from her first scene with Smiley, in which she effortlessly teases out his own anxieties about what he does and how he does it:
"It's like the State and the People. The state is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky. But States make war, don't they, and imprison people. To dream in doctrines -- how tidy! My husband and I have both been tidied now, haven't we?"
This coming just pages after a summary of Smiley's career -- which started out in the days when the spy trade barely was one, was just a loose affiliation of smart and careful people who had the wisdom to see that action on the front of a war cannot be the only action, and continued, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, into the age of professionalization and bureaucracy -- is devastating. And that scene is hardly her only bravura performance. I find myself wishing le Carre had written a series of Elsa Feenan novels in addition to, if not instead of, the Smiley ones.
But that's how good chronicles should go, isn't it? We'd tire quickly of a series in which Our Hero/point of view character is relentlessly and only what our attention is drawn to; he or she must have foes and foils, must encounter other equally interesting (if not more interesting) characters in his adventures. And by this reckoning, these Smiley novels are quickly going to become compulsive reading favorites right up there with Ripley novels, and Sharpe novels, and Aubrey/Maturin novels, and Miriam Black novels.
*I saw snatches of some film adaptations of Smiley novels when I was still a kid at home with my parents, but only sort of paid attention to them. Oh look, Obi-Wan is playing some sort of spy chap. Yawn. Small smile for Mom, who is enjoying the film, back to the pages of whatever Michael Moorcock or Jack Chalker or Piers Anthony mega-series had my real attention at the time. Ah, teenagers.