“Breathtakingly ordinary”

The perennial London fog

Call for the Dead
by John Le Carré.
Penguin Books 1964 (1961).

What can be said about Le Carré’s first novel that hasn’t been said before, and better than anything I can offer? What can be added to an assessment of George Smiley which has already been discussed, expanded on, in fact more than adequately described by the author himself in the pages of this and subsequent Smiley novels?

The answer is, of course, nothing of material worth; so the best I can do is present my own reactions to this already six decades old spy thriller, based on my own memories of the early sixties and limited experience of this genre.

But one doesn’t need to be a veteran fan of espionage novels to appreciate the supreme achievement of the then debut novelist, namely the creation of a figure whom Smiley’s ex-wife characterised as breathtakingly ordinary, an oxymoron that is still so apposite and which goes to the heart of Smiley’s appeal as a fictional hero. For his nondescript outward appearance conceals no ordinary mind, proof of the adage that one should never judge a book by its cover.

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