I remember catching bits as my parents avidly watched the, [a:Sir Alec Guinness|66891|Alec Guinness|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1209225692p2/66891.jpg] as George Smiley, TV adaptation. Making Smiley this mythical, yet seedy, character in my mind. A master spy who directs and predicts from behind the scenes without really getting his hands dirty. With Guinness being one of my favourite actors and [a:le Carré|1411964|John le Carré|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1234571122p2/1411964.jpg] being one of my favourite authors it seems bizarre that, not only have I never seen the whole TV series but, I've never read more than a couple of the Smiley novels and, even then, never as a cohesive series.
The recent film of [b:Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy|7081540|Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (George Smiley, #5)|John le Carré|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1336204273s/7081540.jpg|2491780]
led to an impulse purchase of that book, which in turn led to an impulse purchase of this, the first in the series, briefly available for free from Amazon, [b:Call for the Dead|17735048|Call for the Dead (George Smiley, #1)|John le Carré|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1365259033s/17735048.jpg|1176737]
. If you're going to read a series, the best place to start is normally at the beginning.
And, what a beginning. Possibly a brave opening chapter, especially for a début novel, or possibly a naive start, because it's a début novel, but the first chapter presents a potted history of the central character – George Smiley – rather than having to rely on flash-backs or overbearing exposition it's all laid out for us in the first chapter and then the book can get on with actually telling the story. After all, we already know who Smiley is. I don't think I've ever seen such an approach to character building before, and it really works well here.
The rest of the novel is, although expertly written, fairly standard cold-war spy fare. Smiley is tasked with interviewing Samuel Fennan of the Foreign Office. The service had received an anonymous tip-off that he still, secretly, harboured communist tendencies and party membership. Although Smiley's investigation was amicable and he clears Fennan of suspicion, that night though before any official pronouncement on the investigation, Fennan commits suicide blaming Smiley's investigation in his note. What starts as a little off-the-books investigation, to make sure the service isn't going to get dragged through the courts, soon ends up as a full-on search for a secret East-German spy cell operating out of London and stealing Foreign Office secrets. The reader's suspicion should fall pretty quickly on the very suspicious Mrs Fennan, but the details: the hows, whys and wherefores are what keep you reading as le Carré expertly leads us and Smiley through his investigation as well as managing to provide more depth to the character history presented in the first chapter.
The parallels of Smiley's and his wife's story – they start the book separated but at the end she appears to be interested in returning to him; compared to Fennan's and his wife's story – they start the story together and happy, but you start to realise that their relationship hid a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust – show a lot more to this novel than just a spy novel. Le Carré is building something larger here, a world and a set of characters that will presumably carry him through the rest of the seven books in the series...