Call for the Dead is John le Carré's first novel. It was published in 1961. The novel marks the first appearance of his trademark character, George Smiley and the MI6-inspired Circus, and also includes some scene-setting for his later novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
In Call for the Dead, Smiley performs a routine background check on an agent who's been accused of past communist associations. Smiley rules that Samuel Fenman was clean, but Fenman dies suddenly shortly after the report is filed. He leaves a suicide note saying that the accusation has ruined his career and his reputation and that he can't go on. Despite the fact that Smiley had cleared Fenman, Circus personnel circle the wagons around him and blame him for Fenman's death.
During a visit to Fenman's widow, Smiley answers the phone — it's a wake-up call for Fenman. A police officer investigating the death tells Smiley that Fenman had requested the call the night before. Strange thing to do if you were about to commit suicide, right?
Smiley resigns from the Circus and sets about investigating the death on his own.
The novel was received well enough for le Carré to keep writing while working at MI5 and MI6. He resigned from the agencies after the success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
In Call for the Dead le Carré set up a timeline that saw Smiley recruited to the Circus in 1928. He would later revise this in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so that he wouldn't be too old to participate in that novel, which was set in the early 1970s, as well as a future Smiley series he had planned.
Call for the Dead also introduces recurring le Carré character Peter Guillam, whose own timeline was revised by the time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He was originally a contemporary of Smiley's, but later revised to be younger.
The novel also dives right into Smiley's troubled marriage with Ann, which becomes a major plot point in future novels.
Call for the Dead was first adapted as a film in 1966. The Deadly Affair was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred James Mason, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.) It was later adapted as a BBC radio drama starring Simon Russell Beale as Smiley.