Sunday, January 24, 2021

John le Carré, Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962), and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

I'd been thinking about trying le Carré for some time, so I decided to start at the beginning.  I wouldn't do this with any ol' writer, but hey, his first novels are also his first George Smiley novels, and if I get into the series, I'll want to read them at some point, but it might be anticlimactic.  So why not just bowl on through?  They're all short, anyway.

So Call for the Dead introduces ol' Smiley: middle-aged, divorced, overweight--an intentional contrast with James Bond.  He works for the British intelligence agency known as "the Circus;" during World War II, he was posted in Germany, working as a professor (his passion is seventeenth-century German poetry), while feeling out German students to find potential double agents.  The novel is a murder mystery, basically: George had interviewed a guy named Fennan about his past membership in the Communist Party; he doesn't think much of it, and nothing bad's going to happen to Fennan--until he turns up dead, an apparent suicide.  Or IS it?!?  Well, given that I <i>just</i> called it a murder mystery, you may have justified doubts.  With the help of his coworker Peter Guillam and a retired cop named Mendel, he investigates.  A figure from his past in Germany reemerges.  It's a short book and rather simple, but also compelling enough.  I wouldn't exactly call it a major statement, but it's certainly an auspicious start.

A Murder of Quality is extremely different.  It's purely a murder mystery, not involving international espionage in any way.  What happens is, a public school master's wife is murdered.  Smiley investigates (at this point he's no longer with the Secret Service and answers vaguely when asked what he does).  The British habit of using "public" and "private" in the exact wrong way will never not be confusing.  Anyway, there's some degree of satire about "public" schooling that's probably gonna be lost on anyone who didn't grow up in that culture.  I want to say more about the book, but I can't; I found it really boring.  There's nothing else I can say about it.  I'm glad I read it now and won't have to later out of some misguided sense of completism.

Well The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a whole 'nuther ballgame.  It's easy to see why it was le Carré's first big success.  It's definitely more what you would assume a le Carré novel would be like.  Surprisingly (or not), Smiley barely appears here (though he's heavily involved in off-page machinations).  I suppose it's like Trollope's Palliser novels, in which the Pallisers themselves don't always play much role.  The protagonist here is Alec Leamas, managing agents in West Berlin.  They're all getting themselves killed lately, and he's sent home.  Later, he becomes involved in a plot to get rid of a German agent named Mundt, who had played a role in Call for the Dead.  So he goes undercover as a supposed defector to the GDR, but it will not surprise you to learn that there are rings within rings here, and complicated levels of betrayal.  It's quite a page-turner, for sure.  The real thing, spy-novel-wise.  I should, however, emphasize that it's incredibly grim--borderline nihilistic.  There's no catharsis, and every character ends up either dead or hideously morally compromised.  'Tis probable that you have to be in a certain mood to enjoy it.

Well, hell, but for what it's worth, I'm definitely going to read more le Carré--now or later, we'll see, but he's certainly one to watch.


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