John le Carré, “A Murder of Quality” (1962) – A little while back I read “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” and it was outstanding, so I decided to read all of John le Carré’s Smiley novels, and maybe more of his work after that if I wasn’t sick of it by then. “The Spy Who…” was Le Carré’s third Smiley book. I read his first novel, “Call for the Dead,” a little while later, and that one was pretty good, and now I’ve filled in the gap with “A Murder of Quality” which, when you get down to it, isn’t really a spy novel but a crime novel.
George Smiley, Le Carré’s rumpled, diffident master spy, gets called in for a domestic job by one of his secretaries from the war. This secretary had gotten a job managing a Christian magazine. I assume the Anglican Church probably has a magazine, too, but I knew straightaway it would be a “chapel” magazine, that is, a publication for non-Anglican English Protestants. The secretary wrote the magazine’s advice column, and she got a creepy letter from a subscriber saying she was about to be murdered… then she was! Fuck!!
Naturally, given how weird it all is, she calls on her former boss Smiley, who hasn’t got a lot to do these days so decides to lend a hand. When you’re in the British spy biz you usually have all kinds of hoity-toity connections, and that comes in handy here. Stella, the murdered woman, was the wife of an instructor at Carne, an extremely fancy boarding school, where the brother of one of Smiley’s war friends also works, giving him an in to go investigate.
Le Carré said this novel was partially inspired by his brief time teaching at Eton. I guess he didn’t like it! He makes Cold War East Germany sound a lot more pleasant than British boarding school. While international intrigue doesn’t really figure into this whodunnit, in a way, it is more of a spy novel than a crime novel. A spy, Smile, attempts to infiltrate an alien and sinister society and manipulate its ways in order to learn its secrets. He only barely invokes the specter of the rape of minors — the main thing I think of when I think of British boarding schools — to get across how terrible it is! Mainly, everyone there seems to operate on some sick combination of self-loathing and self-love, propelled by institutional inertia and the miracle of compound interest on a foundation started four hundred years before.
I don’t want to spoil it, but what at first seemed like a murder (then murders!) based on class spite come to be based more on individual sociopathy. This was a little disappointing, truth be told. There were some decent exposition-switchbacks in the end but the real story seemed to come out of nowhere. I don’t think whodunnit was Le Carré’s thing, really. But he’s such a master of language, characterization, and pacing, it was still a respectable read, and I look forward to picking up the next Smiley. ****