Early in September I had what NPR used to call a “Driveway Moment”. Having picked up my wife from work, we were listening to Fresh Air as Terry Gross interviewed David Cornwell aka John le Carré. Cornwell was fascinating and Gross was on top of her game, but we had pulled into the driveway and I had work to do. The car was turned off and I went inside. In the age of internet the Driveway Moment is no more as I knew that I would be able to listen to the interview the next day at my own convenience. Gross asked Cornwell about his new book A Legacy of Spies and why he wrote: “about a spy forced to face his responsibility for two death decades ago?”
I think because, back then, we had a clear philosophy which we thought we were protecting. And it was a notion of the West. It was a notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance – all of that we called anti-communism. That was really a broad brush because there were many decent people who lived in communist territories who weren’t as bad as one might suppose. But now, today, this present time in which these matters are being reconsidered in my novel, we seem to have no direction.
We seem to be joined by nothing very much except fear and bewilderment about what the future holds. We have no coherent ideology in the West, and we used to believe in the great American example. I think that’s recently been profoundly undermined for us. We’re alone. Two of my most important characters in the story, Peter Guillam, the narrator, and George Smiley, who is William’s master, if you like, both of them turn out to be semi-Europeans. I think my concern as I started writing the book in this extraordinary atmosphere in which we presently live was somehow implicitly to make a case for Europe, which has now become an endangered species.
I was taken in by Cornwell’s thoughts about the death of the American ideal and what our future might hold for us.
FRESH AIR: Terry Gross interviews John le Carré
The interview gets even better as Cornwell describes his childhood: the mother that abandoned her children and growing up with a con-artist father — this part could not be more fascinating. While listening to this incredible interview, I figured it was time to read some John le Carré, this guy does have a sterling reputation as a writer. I do have some vague recollection of reading a John le Carré novel, but with over a dozen films and TV shows made, I am still unsure. And my adventure into John le Carré’s world has begun with my reading of Call for the Dead.
The novel begins with George Smiley being summoned to the Circus. This simple sentence, without explanation of Smiley or the Circus, is understood by all. For over 50 years, John le Carré’s works have seeped into our collective consciousness. We find out that Smiley is the antithesis of James Bond, “short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” Compared to a bullfrog, Smiley could be seen waddling “down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.” Even Smiley’s wife Ann left him for a Cuban race car driver!
Call for the Dead is not a spy thriller in any sense, rather it is a murder mystery where the players all work in the espionage business. If the characters worked as cooks and waitstaff, it would still be a murder mystery and not a restaurant thriller.
Smiley is quickly dispatched to Surrey, south of London, to tie up the loose ends in a suicide; the victim, a Samuel Fennan, was interviewed days before by Smiley. The Circus, especially Smiley’s supervisor, would like this embarrassing situation to go away. It’s all very English. Smiley makes his way to Fennan’s house and quickly surmises that the suicide is a murder and so the story begins.
If you’ve never read John le Carré and have heard of his reputation of being a great writer, these rumors are true.
There had been a time when the mere business of driving a car was a relief to him; when he had found in the unreality of a long, solitary journey a palliative to his troubled brain, when the fatigue of several hours’ driving had allowed him to forget more sombre cares.
It was one of the subtler landmarks of middle age, perhaps, that he could no longer thus subdue his mind. It needed sterner measures now: he even tried on occasion to plan in his head a walk through a European city—to record the shops and buildings he would pass, for instance, in Berne on a walk from the Münster to the university. But despite such energetic mental exercise, the ghosts of time present would intrude and drive his dreams away. It was Ann who had robbed him of his peace, Ann who had once made the present so important and taught him the habit of reality, and when she went there was nothing.
There is nothing exceptional here in the excerpt above, it is just damn good prose. You’ll find such clear and beautiful writing throughout Call for the Dead and even the mystery is quite good. I am looking forward to reading the next John le Carré book, A Murder of Quality.