Call for the Dead by John le Carre

 Call for the Dead  cover

Call for the Dead by John le Carre was first published in 1961 and it’s the first book in his George Smiley series. I’ve really enjoyed his Smiley books in the past but I really wish I had started to read them in the correct order. I had always been puzzled by Smiley’s strange marriage to the wildly unfaithful Lady Ann, so I was glad to discover from this book some of the history behind the couple.

As soon as I started reading this book I realised that it had been made into a film and I had seen it fairly recently, it didn’t go into the details of the marriage though so I did learn more from the book.

George Smiley had been given the job of questioning one of the British Intelligence staff members who has come under some suspicion, he’s supected of spying for the East Germans. Smiley takes him to a park to have an informal chat with him but despite the low stress venue and laid-back style, the suspect soon ends up dead, supposedly at this own hands, but Smiley isn’t convinced, it just doesn’t add up to him. His bosses in the ‘Circus’/ British Intelligence seem keen to blame Smiley for the death, but soon Smiley himself is attacked.

This is a suspenseful read, but if you’re a James Mason fan you might want to seek out the film which is called The Deadly Affair.

The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

 The Double Image cover

The Double Image by Scottish author Helen MacInnes was first published in 1966, so at the height of the Cold War and this book seems now to be a nostalgic look back to the time when spies were kitted out with seemingly innocuous items such as pencils, cuff links, tie clips and lipsticks in which could be hidden notes, microfilm or even a poison filled tablet for use in desperation.

The book begins in April in Paris where academic John Craig is doing some historical research. He’s very surprised to bump into an old professor of his in the street. Professor Sussmann looks very worried and it transpires that he has just seen a man that he had presumed to be dead years ago. Sussmann is an Auschwitz survivor and he’s in Paris to testify against a group of Nazis who are on trial in the city. Of course the Nazis are all claiming that they were only obeying orders, but the man who was giving them the orders is Heinrich Berg and according to Sussmann he has just seen him in Paris, although he was supposed to have died and been buried years ago. The worrying thing is that Sussmann thinks that he was recognised by Berg as they had been childhood friends.

So begins an old-fashioned but very readable espionage tale which ends up with John Craig becoming involved in a joint MI5, CIA and Deuxieme Bureau plot to catch Berg along with others of his ilk. As you would expect there are plenty of surprises along the way including double agents.

When the action moves to the Aegean island of Mykonos, a place that John Craig had intended visiting anyway, the sense of danger and tension ramp up.

This was a really enjoyable read, probably particularly if you remember the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War.

I love the dust jacket of this book but sadly my hardback copy has lost its cover. The one above is the one that should have been on my 1966 copy though, I think it’s very stylish.

The Looking-Glass War by John le Carre

The Looking Glass War cover

The Looking Glass War by John le Carre was first published in 1965. This is the third le Carre book that I’ve read and it’s the one that I least liked, it seems that I’m not alone in that as le Carre said that “his readers hated me for it”, but he was cheered by the fact that it went down better with American readers. I suspect that this tale is just too near the truth for most Brits to want to accept. The two government military intelligence departments involved are rivals, don’t share information and a lot of mistakes are made.

A Soviet defector claims that the Soviets are positioning missiles at Rostock close to the West German border. That information is treated as suspect and in an attempt to get some clarification an airline pilot is paid to divert his plane over Rostock to get photographs of the area. The intelligence officer sent to pick up the film is killed in a hit and run accident but this is interpreted as being a murder by the Stasi. A lot of the book is about a Polish officer being trained to go into the east to send radio messages back to London. Almost as soon as he gets there things go wrong. It’s not going to end well.

This book was written as a satire but mainly hasn’t been read as such.

It shows that lives were/are cheap but as the reader is involved with the spy and the relationship between him and the man training him then the casual lack of loyalty leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For that reason I found it quite depressing particularly as John le Carre was an MI5 and MI6 agent himself and he said it was an accurate representation of his own experiences. It sounds like ‘botched’ is the operative word.

Not long ago the man at the top of such things nowadays gave a speech at St Andrews University, saying that you didn’t have to be an Oxbridge graduate to be recruited by them. I’d advise anyone to just say NO.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy cover

I was pleased when I realised that I could read The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre for The 1977 Club as we have all of his books in the overflow bookcases in the garage. Jack read them at that time. But I have only read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre previously. I was even happier when it dawned on me that this book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, I have a bit of a personal project going on to read as many as those prize winners as I can get a hold of.

I loved this book although for me it was essential that I had the time to read it over quite a short period of time, it’s not a 30 pages at bedtime before you fall asleep sort of book. Also as I was reading it 41 years after it was published it has a distinct feeling of nostalgia and historical fiction now.

It begins with the British secret service (the Circus) being under a cloud as far as the American ‘Cousins’ are concerned as Bill Haydon has not long been unmasked by George Smiley as a spy for Russia, recruited when he was a student at Oxford 30 years previously. Haydon had so much influence he had been able to have good members of staff pensioned off or elbowed out, leaving a very much weakened Circus. George Smiley is in charge of putting together a team to investigate money laundering in Hong Kong which was still a British Crown Colony at that time. He manages to bring back some of those that Haydon had ousted. The investigations lead from Hong Kong to Cambodia and Thailand and drug smuggling comes into it too.

That’s all I’m going to say about the story, it’s quite convoluted as you would expect of a spy story, but I really enjoyed this one and the fact that I haven’t read any of the other Smiley books which were written before this one wasn’t a problem at all, although I had watched them on TV years ago. I must say that I think Alec Guinness was the perfect Smiley.

1977 Club

Some previous 1977 books that I’ve read are:

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I,Claudius by Robert Graves

Mexico Set by Len Deighton

Mexico Set cover

Mexico Set by Len Deighton is the second of his books to feature Bernard Samson, the first one being Berlin Game which I enjoyed recently. I must say though that I found this one to be even better and I can hardly believe that it has taken me so long to get around to reading Len Deighton, especially given the fact we have had all his books since they were originally published.

It’s difficult to say too much without giving away what happened in the previous book but here goes …

Bernard Samson has been working in British Intelligence for years, as his father before him did, but he has had a shock to his system recently and he’s now a suspect figure within the world of espionage.

There’s a lot of coming and going between Mexico, Berlin and London, it’s the Cold War era and the powers that be in London want to get a particular KGB operative to defect to Britain – will he? – won’t he?

There’s also a lot of office politics going on, but it seems that the top jobs only ever go to Oxbridge candidates which is quite scary when you consider that according to another book that I read recently – Oxford and Cambridge accepted students with virtually nothing in the way of exam passes, the important thing was that your face/background fitted – up until as recently as the 1960s.

I think that the author made a good job of the atmosphere in all of the countries but particularly the situation for people living in East Berlin and unable to see their families in West Berlin. It’s a fact that in those days whenever you (I) met any people who had been originally from ‘eastern bloc’ countries, they always had a flamboyantly embroidered imagination of the past – they were always from a family that had masses of land and property – and even aristocratic titles which was/is laughable but at the same time terribly sad.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton

Berlin Game cover

Berlin Game by Len Deighton was first published in 1983. I can remember it being published, in fact as I recall it, some people seemed to be waiting with bated breath for the next Len Deighton book to be published in those days. I think we have all of his books but this is the first one I’ve ever read. I had meant to blog about it before we went away on holiday, or during the holiday, but just didn’t get around to it.

I did think as I was reading it though that it was much more straightforward than I had imagined these espionage books to be. Written during the Cold War, at a time when people were still wondering if there were more ‘Establishment’ English public school Oxbridge spies still to be discovered – or to leg it to the USSR, Berlin Game would have been quite topical when it was first published.

An agent in east Berlin wants to leave and take up a new life in the west. Bernard Samson is given the job of getting the agent out safely, it’s the sort of thing he used to do years ago before he became desk bound in London. He’s reluctant to get involved with something so dangerous and his wife who also works in British Intelligence tells him to avoid the task, but there is no alternative.

Everybody and everything in this book is suspect, Samson knows there must be a traitor in London – possibly it’s his wife, or is she just having an affair with a colleague? He’s suspicious of everyone.

I enjoyed this book but I did think that if it had been written by a woman then these books would have been unlikely to have been as wildly successful as they were – back in the day I think Helen McInnes and Evelyn Anthony wrote more suspenseful espionage books, but I must admit that it’s years since I read any of those books so I might be completely wrong about that. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?