P. Pufferfish’s first attempt at reading John Le Carré

Last week, I got around to watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy after… 3 or so years? It was a decent movie, but I had some trouble telling if some of the flashback scenes were part of one large flashback or were actually different flashbacks that all happened to be around the same time each year (you’ll know exactly what I mean if you’ve seen it). Anyways… callforthedeadcover

Today’s featured book: Call For The Dead, by John Le Carré, who, by the way, is one of the most fascinating authors ever. Check out his Wiki page.

Format I consumed it in: Print, on loan from another library in the system where I work. They have one of the older editions with nothing but the title and author’s name on the cover.

The premise: George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in the movie), still recovering from his divorce (separation?) from his wife, Lady Ann, is asked to do a routine interview of a Foreign Office executive who the department has received an anonymous tip about. After the interview, the executive, Sam Fennan, appears to commit suicide, leaving behind a typed/signed letter stating that his reputation is in ruins after the interview and all the suspicion towards him. His wife, Elsa, confirms that he had been feeling down since the interview. However, while questioning her, Smiley borrows her telephone and accidentally picks up a reminder call that Elsa claims is for her; the telephone company informs Smiley that the call had been placed by Sam Fennan the night before his death, which would mean that he didn’t expect to die the next day. Smiley is suspicious and proceeds to investigate further.

My thoughts: I’ve heard John Le Carré’s name all my life and am aware of all the books that he’s published since 1961, when Call For the Dead came out. This book really feels like a first novel. Thankfully, it’s very short (128 pages, in the edition I have; I think there’s another edition that’s 160 pages). Some of Le Carré’s point-of-view shifts were a bit jarring, and there was SO MUCH DIALOGUE. I am a big fan of dialogue-heavy books, but there were paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition. I found myself wishing for a flashback when I normally find flashbacks (especially in a mystery novel setting) sort of cheesy and overused. Too much telling, not enough showing– this book is a prime example of that age-old writing workshop rule!

George, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch in the TTSP movie), and Elsa Fennan were all interesting enough as characters, but they weren’t great characters. I have no doubt that if I keep reading until I get to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which is actually the fifth book in the Smiley series), Smiley and Peter will really start to grow on me, but for now, I’m not that invested yet. I do want to know more about Smiley’s odd relationship with his ex-wife(?) Ann, though; she seems like an unusual woman, especially for that time period. Smiley’s descriptions of the man she left him for, though, are a bit racially insensitive. I get that he’s frustrated, and the comparison he uses is “understandable”, considering the time period in which this was written, but still uncomfortable to read.

I did not like [SPOILER] the whole Dieter Frey-being-behind-the-whole-thing path the book took. It felt very contrived, and it didn’t help that the introduction/presentation was done poorly. Peter’s investigation reveals that Elsa has been sending correspondence to an address belonging to a specific German firm. Smiley then treats us to a paragraphs-long story about his time in Germany (where he first met Dieter Frey, who was still a university student at the time) seemingly out of nowhere so we can get to know our villain more intimately. Then, at the end, Le Carré proceeds to explain Frey’s overall motivation in such a hand-wavy way. HEH?

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had more knowledge of the politics/history of this time period. As it is, I know virtually nothing about popular university politics and opinions in this particular time period in England and Germany’s history (so many people were in the Communist party! Whaaaaat?) and Great Britain’s involvement in the Cold War in general. Same with all the directions and street names the characters shout out during chase scenes– I can imagine that if I were a resident, I would go I know exactly which alleyway they’re running down! or something along that vein, but when Le Carré says “in the style of Fulham” or whatever, I have no clue what that means.

Rating: 2.5/5. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t dislike it. I think it was a decent book, but I feel as if I’m watching the first one or two episodes of a show and am not that into it yet.