Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Murder of Quality: John le Carré

I am currently working on a project to read all the Smiley novels by John le Carré. I read the first one, A Call for the Dead, eight or nine years ago and did not get to the second one until early this year. A Murder of Quality has much in common with the first book, in that both are really detective stories, and not spy novels at all. It was a surprise to me initially that the espionage element is missing but that made no difference in the end. Yet it is something that readers should be aware of if what they are looking for are spy novels.


Miss Brimley, editor of The Christian Voice, receives a letter from a subscriber, Stella Rode, the wife of an assistant master at the Carne School. She fears that her husband is planning to kill her. Brimley worked with Smiley during the war and knows he is not currently employed, so she calls and asks him to follow up on the accusation. Smiley makes an introductory call to the Headmaster at Carne and finds that Mrs. Rode had been murdered the previous night. He takes the letter to Inspector Rigby in Carne. Rigby, knowing that Smiley will have easier access to the staff at the school, asks him to aid in the investigation.

Some reviewers make a case that le Carré is writing more about British society and the class system than about espionage in all of his books, and I can see that point of view. Being from the US, I may not notice so much. This book is set in an academic setting, and in the introduction to the book, le Carré makes clear his hatred of that type of elite boy's school environment, based on personal experience.

From the introduction, written in 1989:
Rereading the book now, I find a flawed thriller redeemed by ferocious and quite funny social comment. Most of all I recognise the dankness of those old stone walls that formed the limits of my childhood and left me for the rest of my life with an urge to fight off whatever threatened to enclose me.
Le Carré is one of those authors that I can read just for the way he tells the story. I am not saying that I can do without any plot at all, but the plot is not the main attraction. Le Carré does characterization very well but most of the people in this novel are extremely unlikable. The school environment is a closed society, and the relationships between various members of the faculty and their wives are competitive and strained at best, sometimes adversarial. I was rooting for some of them to be the murderer, they were so horrible.

I am now reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In late January I read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and more recently The Looking Glass War. Both of those books are very grim. Even though those books feature Smiley for just a minimal amount of time, I think they add to the picture I have of Smiley going into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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Publisher:   Walker & Co., 2004 (orig. pub. 1962) 
Length:       152 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book in 2007.

36 comments:

  1. Ooh, looking forward to what you make of Tinker Tailor, Tracy!

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    1. So far I am liking it a lot, Nick.

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  2. I like le Carre a lot but to me this always felt a lot more conventional than CALL FOR THE DEAD and its sequel SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and as a result I've not been that keen to go back to it. Very curious to know what you make of TINKER as I have rather mixed feeling about it, despite its fame.

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    1. This one probably is not as good as Call for the Dead, Sergio, but it has been long enough since I read the first that I am not sure. Spy who Came In... is definitely very different and even darker than I expected it to be. (I had not even seen the movie.)

      I have been pondering whether to hold on to this book for a reread someday or not.

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  3. I loved this series when I read it in the seventies. Read all of his books until he left the cold war and tried to contemporize. (Guess that isn't a word).

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    1. I think I must have read some of his books at some time, but not sure what or when. Definitely wasn't interested in the newer books as they came out but now I may go back and try a few.

      Contemporize is a word ... I had to look it up. Works very well here.

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  4. Tracy – Thanks for the review. Your le Carre project is a good idea.

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    1. I am enjoying reading all of the Smiley books relatively close together, Elgin. Normally I would spread them out but this is working better for me. (And watching the adaptations also, along the way.)

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  5. I've never read LeCarre, but this makes me very much want to try. I mean, I watch The Americans, why not read some spy novels too?

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    1. Rebecca, I want to watch The Americans. We are watching so many series on disc or streaming, but still I hope to fit them in soon.

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  6. I really like your project idea, Tracy! I'll be interested in what you think of the novels as you go through them. And you make a well-taken point about both this novel and A Call For the Dead. Both of them really do have elements of the crime novel in them, and I have to admit I like that.

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    1. I am glad I held onto A Call for the Dead, Margot. I will probably want to reread it eventually.

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  7. I read this a long time ago, and can remember only that it was something of a disappointment - but I might think of it quite differently if I read it now...

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    1. I felt like it was a good combination, Moira, a look at Smiley in a different environment and a good puzzle. But some reviewers had negative reaction to the lack of any element of espionage.

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  8. (I have been reading your blog for quite awhile but this may be the first time I've commented.) I'm glad you reminded me of all these Le Carré books - I love all of them, and it's because of his "voice." It is so distinctive and I do love knowledgeable use of English. As an American, I really appreciate how British college students seem to really have that instilled much better than we do.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Terry. I am really enjoying all the le Carre books I have read. Too bad it took me all this time.

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  9. TracyK: An interesting review. I think I have had enough Le Carre for awhile. After reading his biography I was not inclined to read this book and your review confirmed I can skip it. I think I will go back to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

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    1. I would love to read that biography but first I will read more of his books. I would love to hear what you think of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. You always do very good analyses of books.

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    2. Hi, Tracy,
      I'm interested in your John le Carré project. Just a couple of days ago I finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for my Classics Club. I'll soon be posting a blog entry with my thoughts of the novel, which I'm afraid will be those of an uninformed reader of spy and espionage fiction.

      As a ten-year-old I well remember the enormous stir this novel caused in the media, in Time Magazine, etc. I remember my father reading it urgently, and after this title, my aunts and uncles bought him le Carré titles each Christmas following.

      The edition I read included a 50th anniversary of publication introduction by le Carré, which I found immensely interesting.

      Will be very interested in future posts,
      Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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    3. Judith, I look forward to your review. I do read a lot of espionage fiction but don't think my opinion will be any better informed than yours. I knew that The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was not going to be a happy book, even though I knew little about the story, but was surprised about how dark and depressing it was. And then I watched the movie with Richard Burton which was at least as much of a downer. Not that I regret either experience. My edition has an introduction, but not the same one I think. It was written in 1989.

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  10. Tracy, I'm looking forward to reading Carre's "Smiley" novels of which I have a few. I like his writing — there is a humane quality to it.

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    1. I like his writing also, Prashant. I like how he develops characters. I also look forward to trying some non-Smiley novels eventually.

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  11. Did not know le Carré wrote non-espionage Smiley novels. Fascinating. I agree, Tracy, that his characterizations are well wrought. Coincidentally I've just started C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, and find the public school milieu he endured much more repellent than I'd ever suspected.

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    1. I don't know much about le Carré's later novels, Mathew, but I read that at least one of them had nothing to do with espionage. No matter, I will learn more about them as I move along through his books. I have 7 or 8 of the books not related to Smiley at all.

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    2. Also, Mathew, the picture of the British public school system that I have picked up from fiction is not very positive, but the description in the introduction to this novel makes it clear that le Carré had a very bad experience.

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    1. It took me years to finally start reading these. I haven't been disappointed.

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  13. I did read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and loved it! Le Carré's books project sounds great. At the moment the BBC is showing 'The Night Manager. (6 part series). It is unbelievably good! Don't miss that book from 1993! (or the seres!)

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    1. I enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a lot, Nancy. After the Smiley books I will read more of his other books, and definitely will get to The Night Manager. Both book and series, I hope.

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  14. Honestly, I remember trying to read A Call for the Dead and it kind of bored me. I plan to re-try it one day. Of course I read it after finishing the terrific The Spy who came in from the Cold.

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    1. I've never found Le Carrés to be "page turners." His are more like chess compared with, say, Deighton's checkers. Depends on how contemplative I'm feeling when choosing which to read.

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    2. I am definitely going back and rereading Call for the Dead, Keishon, someday. But yes, I can see where it would take a back seat to The Spy Who Came In....

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    3. Mathew, interesting comparison of le Carre and Deighton. I love both of them. I can take either approach. Right now I am reading a book by Robert Littell.

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  15. Tracy, I've never had the urge to read John LeCarre's books although I know they are very well thought of and read by millions. It's the grimness factor that has always thrown me off. Recently I watched one of the newer (and very dreary) movies based on a Le Carre book and came away reinforced in my notion that these stories are not for me. Jeez, talk about depressing, not to mention that I couldn't figure out what the heck was actually going on. Yes, my antenna are just not tuned to Le Carre.

    Having said that, I think I will take a look at A MURDER OF QUALITY because of your review. I'm nothing if not contrary. :)

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    1. Yvette, A Murder of Quality just seems like a mystery to me. Many of the characters are not very nice but it is not grim at all. I wish I could remember more about his first book, Call for the Dead. I am going to reread it soon.

      The Spy who Came In from the Cold and The Looking Glass War are very grim. I did not find Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to be too grim but neither was it a happy tale.

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  16. Tracy, I've never had the urge to read John LeCarre's books although I know they are very well thought of and read by millions. It's the grimness factor that has always thrown me off. Recently I watched one of the newer (and very dreary) movies based on a Le Carre book and came away reinforced in my notion that these stories are not for me. Jeez, talk about depressing, not to mention that I couldn't figure out what the heck was actually going on. Yes, my antenna are just not tuned to Le Carre.

    Having said that, I think I will take a look at A MURDER OF QUALITY because of your review. I'm nothing if not contrary. :)

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