A Murder of Quality by John le Carré (1962)

‘This is a critical moment in Carne’s development. Many public schools have conceded to the vulgar clamour for change – change at any price. Carne, I am pleased to say, has not joined these Gadarene swine.’ (p.67)

The snobbery latent in Call of the Dead comes out to dominate this, le Carré’s second novel. Why do so many English writers who went to public school seem unable to escape its influence and so often feel compelled to write about their wretched/happy experiences? Because it isn’t an education – it is an entire world, their world, an insular world of agreed attitudes and behaviours, which teaches them what to wear and how to speak and what to think, a world they can never escape.

Carne

This novel is set in a (fictional) private school, Carne, in Devon, where the ageing teachers drink the finest port, bitch about each other and lament the country going to the dogs, where the pupils are schooled in how to speak snob, how to identify plebs at a hundred paces and how to put servants in their place. Some of the parents and even (gasp!) masters are, to be perfectly frank, old boy, not quite up to snuff, if you know what I’m saying. One of them (it turns out to be the crux of the plot) went to grammar school! How ghastly!! The opening pages set the tone of the school and its pupils:

‘Mrs Rode’s quite decent, though – homely in a plebby sort of way…’ [pupil speaking]

‘He says emotionalism is only for the lower classes…] [pupil speaking]

‘My Pater says he’s queer.’ [pupil speaking]

Mr Terence Fielding, senior housemaster of Carne, gave himself some more port and pushed the decanter wearily to his left. (p.4)

‘What was his regiment, Terence, do you know?’ (p.5)

‘He’d never seen a game of rugger before he came here, you know. They don’t play rugger at grammar schools – it’s all soccer.’ (p.6)

‘I’m told her father lives near Bournemouth. It must be so lonely for him, don’t you think? Such a vulgar place; no one to talk to.’ (p.6)

‘The value of intelligence depends on its breeding.’ That was John Landsbury’s favourite dictum. (p.16)

‘His mother is a most cultured woman, a cousin of the Stamfords, I am told.’ (p.59)

‘I’m never sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed-cake in the parlour… She would wear black crêpe on Sundays… Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p.99)

This isn’t a subtle code. The air of superiority which everyone in this tiny world gives themselves is rammed into your face from the first page. You – poor plebeian reader – are not of this exclusive world. You are admitted on sufferance.

(Maybe le Carré is satirising this world, but he is satirising it from within and is therefore implicated – in its aloofness, its petty cruelties, its unkindness, its ‘effeminate malice’ (p.55), its air of seedy failure, of moneyed stupidity, of well-dressed philistinism. His character Smiley, we know from the first novel, went to a public school and on to an Oxford college, and fusses about the right wine to drink and people’s accents and their suits.)

The plot

A teacher (sorry, master)’s wife sends a letter to an obscure Christian periodical, saying she fears her husband intends to murder her. The woman who runs the periodical single-handed happens to have worked in Intelligence during the War and ponders which of her colleagues could help out. More or less the only one left standing is George Smiley.

She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him. (p.20)

What percentage of the population, I wonder, has a personal tailor? 1%? What percentage was it in 1962? More subtly mannered is the deployment of ‘for’ instead of the common English usage ‘because’. His frequent use of ‘for’ is a symptom of the Victorian prose or Biblical phraseology which le Carré is prone to slip into once he strays from direct factual description (‘For it is written, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”‘). When he wanders from action and factual description into generalising about characters or settings, le Carré is sometimes in danger of sounding portentous (‘done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress’).

Everyone is notable

Inevitably, the letter-writing master’s wife comes from a notable family – the Glastons, don’t you know – ‘Stella’s grandfather was old Rufus Glaston, a Lancashire pottery king; he and John Landsbury’s father built chapels and tabernacles in practically every village in the Midlands.’

Inevitably, Fielding the senior house-master at Carne, is brother of a chap who worked for ‘the Service’. His retirement was mentioned in The Times, dontcha know?

Inevitably, Smiley met him once at Magdalen High Table, nice chap, not quite the same calibre as his brother, dontcha know.

— In this small, privileged world, everyone knows everyone else, a connectedness which is rooted in the public school system and extends beyond it to university, into the professions and the civil service, across the Army and down into the police force (always down into the police force: Smiley et al admire the police but they’re not People Like Us.)

Inspector Rigby looked at Smiley thoughtfully over his desk, and decided that he liked what he saw. He had got around in the war and had heard a little, just a very little, of the work of George Smiley’s Service. If Ben said George Smiley was all right, that was good enough for him. (p.31)

Of course, Rigby the local policeman is himself admirable, competent, efficient, clever. The police always are in le Carré, as they always are in real life.

Strongest and best

Because everyone in these texts just is jolly bright – clever man, good man, solid man, dependable chap, one of the brightest and best. Thus Smiley, who critics sometimes refer to as some kind of everyman, is exactly the opposite: he is routinely described in the novels as ‘the strongest and the best’ (p.23), the cleverest, the cunningest, the subtlest etc. which, if you take it literally, is quite an indictment of our ruling class and its shabby, shambolic intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s.

Old school tie

This is the same old-school-tie world which Len Deighton sets about satirising in his spy novels, which are exactly comtemporary (Deighton’s début, The Ipcress File, was published the same year as this, 1962). Deighton’s protagonist is an insubordinate, joke-making NCO – fun, creative, witty, sexy – everything Smiley is not.

Le Carré was barely 30 when these first two novels were published and yet the main characters – Smiley and the CID inspector, Mendel – are on the verge of retirement. Le Carré seems happiest writing about late middle-aged men, slow, unfit, much given to drinking whiskey at home and claret at their club, tutting over the younger generation. A world away from the smart, cool world of Deighton’s fictions.

Old man

The air of toff-ish superiority, of snobbish knowingness implicit in a lot of le Carré’s prose is brought out if you add ‘dontcha know?’ or ‘old man’ at the end of sentences describing knowledge or expertise, and imagine the speaker wearing a monocle.

The seven-five from Waterloo to Yeovil is not a popular train, but it provides an excellent breakfast, dontcha know? (p.25)

The Sawley Arms is only full at Commemoration and on St Andrew’s Day, old boy. (p.29)

The dénouement

And the woman who was murdered? Far from being a hapless victim, she turns out to have been a monster who was blackmailing the flamboyant house-master Fielding because of some indiscretion with a boy during the war, mercilessly ribbing him till he could take no more. Le Carré steers suspicion at first towards the local loony lady who hangs out in the abandoned chapel on the moors – then onto the husband (after all the wife had been warning everyone he was about to do her in). But both are red herrings. The Master did it. All is revealed when Smiley invites him to his house in Chelsea, tells him the correct version of events and, as he makes a break for it, is arrested by the solid, honest Devon copper, Rigby.

Not unlike an episode of Morse, with its revelations of malice and blackmail among the oh-so-scenic cloisters.

Related links

TV adaptation

The novel was adapted for TV by Thames Television in 1991. Le Carré adapted the book himself, and it starred Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, with Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland, Diane Fletcher, David Threlfall and a young Christian Bale.

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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