Cover of A Murder of Quality

A Murder of Quality
John Le Carré
157 pages
published in 1961

A Murder of Quality is the second George Smiley novel, after Call for the Dead. Whereas that was a mixture of spy thriller and detective, this is a completely conventional detective novel, with all spy elements removed from it. It therefore is an interesting insight to what the Smiley novels would've been like if Le Carré had stuck with writing detective novels rather than spy thrillers. It's not often you get that chance with a popular series.

A word of warning is also needed: if you come to this novel, or indeed Call for the Dead having read the later Smiley novels expecting something simular, you will be disappointed. This is a straight mystery which has almost nothing in common with the novels that made george Smiley famous, apart from Smiley himself, whose character traits are already fully formed.

The plot in A Murder of Quality gets started when miss Brimley, one of Smiley's old friends fom his intelligence days, now editor of the Christian Voice, a Nonconformist weekly newspaper, gets a letter of one of her readers, who is under the impression her husband is trying to kill her. She recognises the name on the letter, Stella Rode, nee Glaston, as the daughter of a rich Northern industrial, one of the Voice's old time readers and benefactors, which is why she doesn't dismiss the letter out of hand; these are sensible people, not given to hysterics. Stella Rode married a house master from Carne School, one of the great old public schools the upper classes sent their sons to be educated to; and now she thinks he is trying to kill her...

Miss Brimley takes a worries to Smiley, who abuses a slight aquintance with the house master of Carne to try and stay with him for a while and look in the case, but when he calls to make the arrangements it turns out Stella Rode has already been killed. Nevertheless, he goes to Carne School to see if he can find out what was behind her killing, and whether her husband was responsible...

I have always found the best detective novels are those which do not satisfy themselves with presenting a nice puzzle for its readers entertainment, but in some way hold up a mirror to the world, use the detective genre to make a broader point about the society it is set in. A Murder of Quality does this in spades, because in A Murder of Quality the solving of Stella Rode's murder comes second to the class issues that surround it.

Look at how the book opens, with a description of Carne School and its pedigree, before further setting the scene by following a conversation between two Carne School pupils which quickly reveals some of the class issues surrounding the Rodes and finishing with a description of a dinner party held by the senior house master which illuminates further the issues playing at the school, in miniature showcasing the tensions between the masters.

Carne School is an old, snobbish establishment which trains the sons of the upper classes for leadership by people who themselves are part of their class. Both the pupils and masters are keenly aware of this. They know their place in society and accept it wholly and naturally; they're the end result of centuries of tradition.

But the England of 1961 was a country on the edge of change, with all the old securities threatened and already breaking down. This tension, which was also notable in Call for the Dead, drives a lot of A Murder of Quality. The murder victim, Stella Rode was somebody solidly middle class and ill fitted into Carne School society, deliberately so, while her husband was desparate to portray himself as belonging to Carne, but failed because he hadn't grown up with that conviction, being a mere social climber. The school boy conservation that starts the book is illustrative in how both are thought of. She, "decent --homely in a plebby sort of way". He, "keen, bouncing about all the time, not a gentleman".

It's this that lies at the heart of A Murder of Quality, what drives the plot and the murder, though sublimated through other motives. And all of it observed or figured out by George Smiley, the ultimate outsider. It gives the book an atmosphere of genteel entropy, similar to that found in the stories of the English New Wave, over in science fiction. Le Carré, as keen an observer as George Smiley saw what was happening to England and its future, which is reflected in the book. This book could not have been written at any other time.

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Webpage created 09-02-2005, last updated 22-05-2005
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