Call for the Dead is the first of the famous George Smiley spy thrillers by John le Carré. The third in the series, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, is one of my very favourite novels – I listened to it a few years ago thinking it was a standalone, and was delighted when I discovered that there is a whole series of novels set in the context of The Circus, a fictionalised version of MI6. In this first novel, George Smiley – a former intelligence agent before and during WWII, now working in a desk role in London in 1953 – finds himself embroiled in the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan. Shortly before Fennan’s death, the Circus had received an anonymous tip-off that Fennan had been a member of the Communist Party at university. Smiley carried out a routine interview, but had reassured him afterwards that there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Fennan’s suicide, seemingly as a result of feeling hounded and persecuted by this interview, comes as a terrible shock – and leaves Smiley wondering if there might be something else going on.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and the whole way through, I was wondering if I’d read it before. Some parts of it felt very familiar indeed, while others seemed completely new to me. Normally if I’ve read a book before, I at least recognise all the characters and find myself anticipating plot details. When I went to rate it on Goodreads, though, I discovered that I had read it before, but apparently it was days after the 2016 US election – which perhaps accounts for a) the fact that I had such a patchy and inconsistent memory of it, and b) the fact that I only gave it three stars. Although I intended to make my Classics Club list all new-to-me reads, I’m glad I added this to the list, as I think it deserves much better attention than I was able to give it at the time. It’s immensely gripping. Smiley teams up with almost-retired policeman Inspector Mendel, who knows nothing about intelligence work but has much more experience of investigation, and the novel follows them as they try to work out what, exactly, is going on.

Fennan and his wife, Elsa, were both Jewish refugees who had moved to England from mainland Europe. It’s implied, though never directly stated, that Fennan got out in the early days of the Nazi regime and thus avoided a lot of the suffering that his wife endured. Elsa, on the other hand, had been imprisoned in a concentration camp and was housebound for a couple of years following the war as a result of her experiences. Le Carré takes her physical and psychological trauma very seriously, and the book is in part an exploration of the impact that the Fennans’ experiences during the Nazi regime had on them both. I thought all this material was handled very well, and Elsa in particular is an absolutely compelling character – definitely the strongest point of the novel. The other characters are mostly fantastic as well, but Elsa really comes off the page (or out of the audiobook, technically). She was certainly the character whom I most clearly remembered from my first read. Elsa is someone who is very buttoned-up when we first meet her, but clearly has a great deal going on under the surface, which is a challenging character type to get right – I think le Carré did a great job with her.

That said, although I enjoyed this a lot, I don’t think le Carré had really got into the swing of things with this first Smiley novel. It reads like a combination of murder mystery and thriller – actually, at one point, I developed the theory that it seemed so familiar because it has Witness for the Prosecution vibes. I don’t think the two genres tend to mix well – even my beloved Christie usually had mixed results when she tried to combine them, with an important Endless Night-shaped caveat – and the novel is a little muddled in places. It zigzags between clues and red herrings to dramatic action scenes and back, and it’s not always the most coherent plotline. However, for a first introduction to one of the enduring characters of 20th century English fiction, I think this is really wonderful. It doesn’t reach the heights of my favourite The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – but it’s still a fantastic read. Highly recommended!