Sixty years ago, a young man published his first novel. Nobody then could have anticipated what he would go on to achieve. The book had been rejected by Collins before being taken on by Victor Gollancz, who offered an advance against royalties of £100. Even this modest sum was very welcome to the 29-year-old David Cornwell, then commuting by bus each day to an office job from a rented mansion flat in Battersea, where he lived with his wife and two little boys, and a succession of lodgers.

For professional reasons he wanted his book published under a pseudonym. His first choice was "Jean Sanglas". Gollancz preferred a name made up of two Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, and suggested Chunk (or Chuck) Smith or Hank Brown. But Cornwell resisted and went for another Frenchified name: John le Carre.

The novel had been submitted under the title A Clear Case of Suicide. Gollancz recommended it be changed to Call for the Dead, and in this instance the young writer deferred to the experience of the veteran publisher. Though far from obvious at the time, this was the first step in a long and steep climb. Over the next 58 years John le Carre would publish 25 novels, becoming one of the highest-selling authors on the planet. When his 2013 novel A Delicate Truth topped the UK chart, it was half a century after his first bestseller. It is difficult to think of another writer from any era who has achieved such sustained success.

To date, 10 of his books have been adapted into feature films, including Call for the Dead, in 1967, under the title The Deadly Affair. Others have been adapted for the small screen, becoming landmarks in television: The Night Manager, for example, or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Before he died last December he was estimated to be worth $100 million. He was garlanded with awards. Most critics think he would have won the Booker Prize, had he not refused to allow his books to be entered. Philip Roth described A Perfect Spy as "the best English novel since the war".

Coming from nowhere

But all this lay in the future. In 1961, was there anything about Call for the Dead from which one might have predicted that its author would enjoy such a stellar career? Gollancz published plenty of run-of-the mill thriller writers, and it was not immediately obvious that John le Carre would be any different.

In his initial report, Gollancz’s chief reader, Jon Evans, had summarised the book as "a Secret Service thriller of the first rank – by a born novelist". And the critical response to the book had been favourable. Indeed, the reviewer for the literary magazine John O’London’s Weekly speculated that it was so well written, it must be the work of an established author using another name.

"Call for the Dead" is still well worth reading, which is by no means true of every novel published in 1961
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The first impression of 2,500 copies soon sold out, to be followed by a second impression of 650 copies a couple of months after publication. Paperback rights were sublicensed to Penguin for £250, and American rights sold to Walker – "a small American house with a line in English mysteries" – which in turn sublicensed American paperback rights to New American Library. French and German rights were sold also. All in all, this was a very good start, but hardly indicative of the phenomenal success to come. Gollancz offered an improved advance of pounds 150 for his second book. Le Carre planned to write a thriller every year to supplement his salary.

It was not until his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that he made the breakthrough. After becoming a bestseller in Britain, it rose to the top of the US chart and remained there for 35 weeks, becoming the bestselling novel of 1964. No other spy novel had ever sold so well. Almost overnight le Carre found himself rich and famous. He was able to resign from his job, and on the advice of his accountant he left the country to avoid its punitive rates of taxation. His life had changed irrevocably.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold benefitted by being extremely topical. Much of the action takes place in Berlin, the focus of international attention, as the potential flashpoint between the superpowers. The story explores the grubby compromises of the Cold War, then at its height. The novel opens and closes at the newly erected Berlin Wall, the most dramatic symbol of the division between East and West. By contrast, Call for the Dead and its successor, A Murder of Quality, are both set in the south of England. Though some of the characters in Call for the Dead are spies, the plot resembles that of a traditional detective story: the plot of A Murder of Quality even more so. Penguin published both paperbacks in their Penguin Crime series, with its distinctive green livery.

A peak into the future

That said, there are qualities detectable in Call for the Dead that hint at what was to come. For one thing it is exceptionally well-written, as many reviewers noticed. The plot is cleverly constructed, and the set-piece exchanges are handled with the assurance of a mature novelist. Le Carre’s ear for dialogue, so much a feature of his later work, is already apparent. We come to know characters through what they say.

From the very start le Carre had envisaged a cast that could reappear in subsequent books. The first chapter of Call for the Dead, entitled "A Brief History of George Smiley", introduced his most famous character, who would feature in eight further novels. 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 on his squat frame like skin on a sunken toad." Also introduced in Call for the Dead are several subsidiary characters who would reappear in subsequent novels, such as Smiley’s younger lieutenant, Peter Guillam, and the soon-to-be-retired Inspector Mendel.

Smiley is a senior figure in British intelligence, responsible for "positive vetting" of individuals with access to sensitive information – as was David Cornwell at the time when he wrote the book, though at a much more junior level. Samuel Fennan, a civil servant, has apparently committed suicide after being interviewed by Smiley, who comes to suspect that he has in fact been murdered. Smiley’s investigation leads to a deadly game of cat and mouse with East German agents, culminating in an encounter in the fog with a ghost from his past.

Call for the Dead is still well worth reading, which is by no means true of every novel published in 1961. One aspect of the novel little noticed at the time is that several of the most important characters are Jewish. (The same is true of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.) Fennan and his wife Elsa, for example: she is a victim of the camps, horrified by "the new Germany rebuilt in the image of the old", "the dreadful, plump pride returned". Mendel, too, is angered by the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany, though he is less self-consciously Jewish. "My dad was Yid. He never made such a bloody fuss about it."

John le Carre redefined the spy novel, raising it to a level comparable with the most serious literary fiction. He has rightly been described as "the laureate of Britain’s post-imperial sleepwalk". Would he have achieved so much as Chunk Smith? I’m not so sure.

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