Call for the Dead

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Call for the Dead
First edition
AuthorJohn le Carré
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesGeorge Smiley
GenreCrime, spy novel
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages157 pp
Followed byA Murder of Quality 

Call for the Dead is John le Carré's first novel, published in 1961. It introduces George Smiley, the most famous of le Carré's recurring characters, in a story about East German spies inside Great Britain. It also introduces a fictional version of British Intelligence, called "the Circus" because of its location in Cambridge Circus, that is apparently based on MI6 and that recurs throughout le Carré's spy novels. Call for the Dead was filmed as The Deadly Affair, released in 1966.

Plot summary[edit]

Foreign Office civil servant Samuel Fennan apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Smiley had interviewed and cleared Fennan only days previously after an anonymous accusation; because of this, Circus head of service Maston sets up Smiley to be blamed for Fennan's death.

While interviewing Fennan's wife Elsa in her home, Smiley answers the telephone, expecting the call to be for him. It is a requested 8:30 AM call from the telephone exchange. Inspector Mendel, a police officer on the verge of retirement who is investigating the Fennan case, finds out that the call had been requested by Fennan the night before. When Elsa later tells Smiley that she requested the call from the exchange, Smiley becomes suspicious of her. However, Maston unequivocally orders Smiley to refrain from any further investigation into Fennan's death. Back in his office, Smiley receives a letter posted by Fennan the night before, requesting an urgent meeting that day. Believing that Fennan was murdered to prevent the meeting, Smiley resigns from the Circus and attaches his resignation to Fennan's letter, which he forwards to Maston.

Arriving home, Smiley notices a movement in the drawing room. He rings his own door bell and is met by a tall, fair, handsome stranger. Smiley skilfully avoids entering and notes all the number plates of the seven cars parked in the road. Mendel traces one car to a car dealer, Adam Scarr. Scarr tells Mendel that he rents the car out twice a month to a stranger known as "Blondie", whose description matches Smiley's intruder. Smiley is subsequently attacked and nearly killed while trying to track the car to "Blondie", and Scarr is later murdered. Investigating further, Mendel learns that Elsa attends a local theatre twice a month with "Blondie", and that the two exchange music cases at each performance. "Blondie" is soon identified by fellow Circus agent Peter Guillam as Hans-Dieter Mundt, an East German agent under diplomatic cover working for Dieter Frey, a German spy of Smiley's during the Second World War who has since become an important East German agent. Smiley believes that Frey would use a courier like Mundt to service only one highly placed resident agent. Guillam reports that Mundt has fled England.

When confronted with Smiley's evidence, Elsa confesses to Smiley that her husband was an East German spy, that she was his unwilling accomplice in passing secret documents in the music cases, and that Fennan was killed by Mundt after Frey saw him talking to Smiley. However, Guillam learns that during the last six months, Fennan had been taking home insignificant, unclassified documents. Smiley realises that Elsa herself is the East German spy and that Fennan had accused himself to meet someone with whom he could discuss his suspicions about his wife. Smiley sets a trap, using his knowledge of Frey's tradecraft from the war to inspire a rendezvous between Frey and Elsa. When Frey utilises the meeting to kill Elsa, he is trailed by Mendel and killed by Smiley while attempting to escape.

Smiley turns down Maston's offer of reinstatement and promotion and instead flies to Zurich to see his estranged wife, Ann.

Characters in Call for the Dead[edit]

  • George Smiley – an officer of the Circus
  • Samuel Fennan – a British civil servant, who committed an apparent suicide
  • Elsa Fennan – his wife, formerly a refugee from Nazi Germany
  • Inspector Mendel – Smiley's contact with the Metropolitan Police
  • Peter Guillam – an officer of the Circus subordinate to Smiley
  • Maston ("The Ministers' Adviser on Intelligence") – head of service for the Circus
  • Adam Scarr – a semi-criminal "businessman"
  • Hans-Dieter Mundt, aka "Blondie" – an agent of East German intelligence
  • Dieter Frey – an agent of East German intelligence, and a former wartime agent of Smiley's

Film, television, radio and theatrical adaptations[edit]

Call for the Dead was filmed as The Deadly Affair (1966). It was directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Paul Dehn, and starred James Mason as Charles Dobbs, (not George Smiley, as le Carré had sold the rights to use the name "George Smiley" with the rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Harry Andrews as Mendel, Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as Dieter Frey. The major change in the script from the book is the addition of an affair between Ann Smiley and Dieter Frey, which presages the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Call for the Dead was first adapted as a BBC Radio 4 drama in 1978.[1] Subsequently, it was the first story to be broadcast in BBC Radio 4's major series to feature all the Smiley novels ("The Complete Smiley"), with Simon Russell Beale in the main role. Other characters and actors are as follows: Inspector Mendel—Kenneth Cranham; Elsa Fennan—Eleanor Bron; Ann Smiley—Anna Chancellor; Peter Guillam—Richard Dillane; Maston—James Laurenson; Dieter Frey—Henry Goodman; Adam Scarr/Mundt—Sam Dale; Ludo Oriel—Janice Acquah; Nursing Sister—Caroline Guthrie; With Benjamin Askew and Jonathan Tafler. The novel was adapted as a 90-minute drama by Robert Forrest, produced by Patrick Raynor, and was transmitted on 23 May 2009.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Bickerton, Roger. "Radio Plays 1945–1997: Serials". Retrieved 27 November 2012.