Call for the Dead

Call for the Dead

infobox Book |
name = Call for the Dead
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = John le Carré
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series = George Smiley
genre = Crime, Spy novel
publisher = Gollancz
release_date = 1961
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 157 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-7434-3167-7
preceded_by =
followed_by = A Murder of Quality

"Call for the Dead" is John le Carré's first novel. It introduces George Smiley, the most famous of le Carré's recurring characters. Its sequel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", is one of the most famous novels in the espionage genre.

Plot summary

When Foreign Office civil servant Samuel Fennan commits suicide after a routine security check by "the Circus" (so called because of its location in Cambridge Circus, and apparently based on MI6), Smiley is sent to investigate. Smiley had interviewed and cleared Fennan only days previously after an anonymous accusation of Fennan's membership in the Communist Party while at Oxford University; however, head of service Maston believes that Smiley must have been at fault for the suicide. While at the Fennan home interviewing his wife Elsa (a concentration camp survivor), Smiley answers the telephone, thinking that it would be a call from the Circus for him. It turns out to be a wake-up call requested the previous day from the exchange, but when Smiley tells Elsa Fennan about it, she acts surprised.

Smiley then meets Inspector Mendel, a longtime police officer on the verge of retirement who becomes his liaison with the Metropolitan Police, and finds out through him that the call had been specially requested by Fennan at 7:55 PM the night before. Smiley is suspicious, believing that a person about to commit suicide less than three hours later would not have left a special wake-up call. When Elsa Fennan later tells Smiley that she requested the call from the exchange (which Smiley now knows to be false), he concludes that Fennan was murdered. Maston orders Smiley to refrain from any more investigation, though, which leads Smiley to realize that he's about to be fired. However, Smiley's doubts about Fennan's death are confirmed when he then receives a letter posted by Fennan at 6 PM the night before requesting an urgent meeting that day. The wake-up call timing was consistent with the requested meeting time. Deducing that Fennan was murdered to prevent the meeting from taking place, Smiley promptly resigns from the Circus (so that he can investigate freely) and sends his resignation, attached to Fennan's letter, to Maston.

On returning home, Smiley notices a shadow inside his house. Thinking quickly, Smiley rings the doorbell, poses as a laundry delivery man when the door is opened by a tall blonde stranger, and leaves, making a note of the number plates of all the cars parked nearby. Mendel traces one car to a semi-criminal "businessman" Adam Scarr, who tells Mendel that he rents it out to an unknown tall blonde Dutchman that he calls "Blondie" twice a month. After Smiley is attacked and nearly killed while tracking the car, he is hospitalized. Mendel then investigates Elsa Fennan, learning that she attends a local theatre twice a month with a tall blonde man (assumed by theatre personnel to be her husband), and that the two exchange music cases at each performance.

"Blondie" is soon identified for Smiley by fellow Circus agent Peter Guillam as Hans-Dieter Mundt. Mundt is ostensibly a "runner" for the East German Steel Mission, but is actually an East German agent working for Dieter Frey, head of the Steel Mission and an ex-agent of Smiley's during World War II, whom Smiley had first met as a student in Germany (but whom Smiley originally hadn't recruited for spy duty because of Frey's Jewish heritage). Smiley realizes that a courier like Mundt would probably be servicing only one highly-placed resident agent in Britain. Meanwhile, Adam Scarr has been found dead.

When confronted with Smiley's evidence, Elsa Fennan confesses to Smiley that her husband was an East German spy, and she his unwilling accomplice, passing secret documents to Mundt in the music cases. She claims that Fennan was killed by Mundt on Frey's orders after he was seen talking to Smiley. However, Elsa's claim is inconsistent with Guillam's findings that Fennan had Dieter Frey's full name written in his address book (thus not hiding his connection to Frey, as a spy would do) and had (during the last six months) been taking home insignificant, unclassified documents, not the top-secret ones to which Fennan had access.

After discussing the contradictions with Guillam, who informs Smiley that Mundt had fled England before being caught, Smiley realizes that the facts are only consistent with Elsa Fennan being the actual East German spy, and that Fennan had denounced himself in the hope of meeting someone from the Circus with whom he could discuss his suspicions about his wife. Smiley sets a trap, using his knowledge of Frey's tradecraft (which Smiley himself had taught Frey) by covertly arranging a rush meeting between Frey and Elsa Fennan, with each assuming the other had requested it. When Frey realises he has been tricked, he kills Elsa, but he is trailed by Mendel and killed by Smiley while making his escape.

At the end of the story, Smiley turns down Maston's offer to return to the Circus and flies to Zurich to see his estranged wife Ann, who has offered to leave her latest paramour and come back to him.

The antecedents of Smiley and Frey

The book starts with a chapter describing Smiley's earlier career (including his marriage to and separation from Lady Ann Sercombe), his recruitment by a lecturer in Oxford and his work in locating promising young Germans with "agent potential" and recommending them for recruitment by the British service.

One of these was Dieter Frey, a young German Communist who at the time had a common cause with Smiley in fighting the Nazis and also became his personal friend. With the Cold War, Frey had become Smiley's foe, while in a way still remaining his friend. When meeting Smiley again, in the fog near the Thames, Frey greets Smiley with "Servus, George!" before commencing the battle. After killing him, Smiley feels extremely guilty:

Dieter was dead, and he had killed him. The broken fingers of his right hand, the stiffness of his body and the sickening headache, the nausea of guilt, all testified to this. And Dieter had let him do it, had not fired the gun, had remembered their friendship when Smiley had not. They had fought in a cloud, in the rising steam of the river, in a clearing in timeless forest: they had met, two friends rejoined, and fought like beasts. Dieter had remembered and Smiley had not.

Dieter Frey is the first of several considerably sympathetic Jewish/Communist characters appearing in the le Carré books, followed by Liz Gold and Fiedler in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold".

Characters in "Call For The Dead"

* George Smiley - an officer of the Circus
* Samuel Fennan - a British civil servant, and an apparent suicide
* Elsa Fennan - his wife, formerly a refugee from Nazi Germany
* Inspector Mendel - Smiley's contact with the Metropolitan Police
* Peter Guillam - an officer of the Circus subordinate to Smiley
* Maston ("The Advisor") - head of service for the Circus
* Adam Scarr - a semi-criminal "businessman"
* Hans-Dieter Mundt, aka "Blondie" - an agent of East German intelligence
* Dieter Frey - an agent of East German intelligence, and a former wartime agent of Smiley's

Allusions/references to other works

* Mundt is a major character in "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold".
* Mendel is a major character in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", and briefly appears in "Smiley's People". Mendel is also referred to by name in "A Murder of Quality".
* Peter Guillam is a major character in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People", and briefly appears in "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and "The Secret Pilgrim".

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

"Call For The Dead" was filmed in 1966 as "The Deadly Affair". It was directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Paul Dehn, and starred James Mason as Smiley (renamed Charles Dobbs), Harry Andrews as Mendel, Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as Dieter Frey. The major change in the script from the book is the addition of an affair between Ann Smiley and Dieter Frey, which presages the events of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy".


* "Call For The Dead", Penguin, 1965.

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