John Le Carre, “A Murder of Quality”

Actually, I already possessed this little book but found an upgrade on the magic laundry room shelves… and it fitted so nicely into my purse, with a subway ride ahead of me….

Yeah. The truth is that I just wanted to read John Le Carré again. And I thought that since  A Murder of Quality was only Le Carré’s  second book, it might not be quite as gloomy or cynical (or do I just mean sad?) as so many of his later books. And it isn’t — quite. Though about halfway through I came across this passage:

Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colorful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed.

Sherborne School, John Le Carre's alma mater.

Sherborne School, John Le Carre’s alma mater.

Not exactly cheerful, is it? At the time when Le Carré wrote A Murder of Quality, he was actually working for MI6, then England’s foreign intelligence service. He had spent two years before that at MI5 (domestic intelligence) and before that had taught at Eton. Hence, perhaps, the entirely convincing details of the public-school setting of A Murder of Quality. (The physical setting in Dorset evidently corresponds more closely to Le Carré’s own school, Sherborne.) The fictional Carne School is an ancient and aristocratic institution, proud of its refinement and eager to impart to its students manners and prejudices lingering from the 19th century. A teacher, inviting Smiley to dinner, says, “I usually dress, but never mind.”

I don’t suppose you come to early Le Carré without having read the great Smiley novels, and that puts you as a reader on the completist’s mission, hunting for evidence of what is to come. But A Murder of Quality stands on its own as a neat (if brief) procedural. Stella Rode, the wife of a Carne teacher, fears that her husband plans to kill her in “the long nights.” She feels the police can’t help her, so, circuitously, George Smiley is drawn into the story. As you might expect, snobbery plays a great part in the tale, discussed mostly in terms of minutely observed behavior. (We’ll be seeing more of that as the spy stories come along…) One example: there is a right and a wrong way to cut a piece of fruit at a dinner table. Dead giveaway of plebeian origins.

Overall, in fact, A Murder of Quality is about who belongs and who doesn’t, and how those distinctions affect people. The positive point is that George Smiley, the perpetual outsider, is put in a position where his gift for invisible observation and judgment can be used constructively. The sad point — and this won’t change in Le Carré’s succeeding work — is the lamentable state of humankind.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to John Le Carre, “A Murder of Quality”

  1. Alex says:

    I came to le Carré quite late and so, while I’ve read most of his more recent books the earlier ones are still out there waiting for me. This certainly sounds like one to seek out.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Oh, yes, Alex, I think you’d like it. Quick read, quite bare-bones, but satisfying.

  3. Mary Nicoll says:

    Carol, thank you! I am LOVING this book. What a master. It’s a gem. Mary

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