Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.
Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.
The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.
The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”
We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.
I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.