Call for the Dead by John Le Carré ★★★½
This is the first novel in the George Smiley series, which introduces the MI6 intelligence officer. Middle-aged, self-effacing, bespectacled, short and fat, a bad dresser and sometimes described as frog-like, Smiley presents a more realistic character and the opposite to the fantasy that is James Bond. The first chapter gives us Smiley’s professional background and how he came to be involved with intelligence work, but also presents his current personal situation. Smiley is recovering from heartbreak following his separation from his wife Lady Ann Sercombe, a beautiful and promiscuous aristocrat who has left him for a Cuban racecar driver. The presentations over, Smiler is called in by his superior, Maston, who informs him that a Foreign Office civil servant named Samuel Fennan has just committed suicide following a routine security check performed by Smiley and that he, Smiley is accused of inducing the man to kill himself. It appears that Fennan claimed in his suicide note that he felt his reputation was marred and his career at an end. Smiley is distraught, especially since he remembers the interview, which followed an anonymous accusation, being a particularly pleasant one, and that he had all but guaranteed to Fennan that he was in the clear. When he goes to visit Fennan’s widow Elsa (a Jewish concentration-camp survivor) the next morning, he intercepts a phone call which was meant for the dead man: an 8:30 a.m. wake-up call, which seems to surprise Elsa Fennan. This one incident doesn’t sit well with our spy, who is convinced that Fennan was in fact murdered. In the course of his investigation, Smiler suffers a violent attack which leaves him half dead, though he eventually recovers after a long hospitalization and succeeds in putting all the pieces together. In the process, he exposes an old war-time colleague, a German spy who was working for him, but has since gone over to the other side and is now an operative for the East Germans. This was a good introduction to the popular spy series and to spy novels in general. Looking forward to the next installation, which in this case (for reasons that will be made clear below) will be the third book in the series, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold which is already waiting for me on my virtual audio shelves.
A Murder of Quality by John Le Carré ★★★★
George Smiley is retired from his intelligence work and recovering from his recent separation, but agrees to help his old friend and wartime colleague Miss Brimley, the editor of a Christian magazine with a limited and devoted readership. Miss Brimley has received a letter from a long-standing reader stating: “I’m not mad. And I know my husband is trying to kill me.” But by the time the letter has reached it’s destination, it’s author, the wife of a teacher at the exclusive Carne College, has already been violently and gruesomely murdered. Carne is a community quite closed off from the rest of the world, and those who people the school aren’t willing to speak to the police, but they might be willing to speak to Smiley, who once knew the brother of a certain Fielding, a Housemaster at the school who is about to retire. As Smiley probes into the crime and starts uncovering facts, it seems more and more people may have had motives for murdering the victim, though of course Smiley manages to get to the bottom of things despite the school’s politics and narrow social conventions. In the process, he must also face unpleasant gossip concerning him and his estranged wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who was raised in Carne town. My first Smiley novel, which I unfortunately read out of order (no thanks to the publisher who printed them that way). This didn’t in any way take away from what was a very enjoyable read, though it had me wondering why a novel about a spy agent had no espionage in it.