Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Murder of Quality by John le Carre

I could start off with a meditation on the difference between a mystery and a thriller: the author calls this novel the latter in his 1989 introduction, and it is clearly the former. But his career bent towards thrillers, of a particular sort, in the years afterward, and authors always use words in idiosyncratic ways when describing their own work. So what would be the point?

But this is a mystery novel, of a fairly conventional type at the time it was written (1961), and one that is now loosely related to a much longer series of novels that are not mysteries, even though, amusingly, this is exactly the kind of book that regularly leads to a series of books of this type.

A Murder of Quality was the second novel published as by John le Carre - the author's real name was David Cornwell, and that was never terribly secret. It followed a similar short mystery novel, Call for the Dead, which I haven't read, and was followed by The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which supplied the bend I mentioned above, and which set the tone (and bestseller status) for the rest of le Carre's long career. (I read Spy almost a decade ago, and wrote a little about it at the end of a monthly round-up.)

I've said this is very much a mystery novel; it's also very English. English of a school that I think was already old if not actively dying in 1961. I have to admit I don't have the background to make clear some major aspects of the text: all of the social assumptions that people in this world make and live every day, from the importance and workings of a "great school" to the cultural markers of the Church of England and the Baptist Chapel. (And even why it's called "Chapel" almost exclusively in this book, with the identifier "Baptist" only being mentioned once, very late.) There's also a deeply closeted homosexual, and references to a crime committed years ago that may have been a homosexual act - or may have been any serious interpersonal crime up to murder; it's talked about that vaguely.

It is the early 1960s. It is mostly set at a fictional "great school" - for Americans, or anyone else not in this world, think the media image of Eton or Harrow, and know we're all missing massive amounts of nuance - called Carne, set in the town of that name somewhere vaguely out in the English countryside, a very long train ride from London.

It begins in a deeply English way: the spinster editor of a small, unprofitable, and vaguely religious magazine receives a letter from a subscriber asking for advice and expressing worry that her husband is going to kill her. The editor is inclined to act because the subscriber won a cooking contest in the magazine the year before: she is one of them. And so the editor asks an old friend from the war to make a discrete inquiry, because this doesn't quite look like the sort of thing for the police.

That old friend is George Smiley, who was the central character of le Carre's previous novel and eventually becomes something like the central character of his series of spy novels. He and the editor both worked "in intelligence" during the war; what that means is alluded to here, but never explained in any detail. Smiley calls up the head of a Carne house who he knows slightly; the head's brother was a co-worker during the war and is now dead.

And, of course, Smiley learns the woman has just been murdered, and he needs to go to Carne, ostensibly on behalf of the religious magazine, and poke around until he solves the murder. He needs to do this, Doylistically, because that's the novel, but the Watsonian reason is explicitly to show the flag for the magazine to a family that has supported it since the year dot.

The poking and solving are the bulk of this short novel: Smiley is the quiet, observant sort of sleuth, letting others talk and maneuvering himself into positions where he can talk, and more importantly listen to, all of the major players. That's the plot, but the book is about the atmosphere, the social attitudes, how the masters interact with each other and their wives. (The wives are very secondary, and I don't remember a single positive true thing said about any of them.)

As I said, I can't tell you the cultural significance of all those details, but le Carre has a relentless eye and a cutting pen; the book is full of interesting insights and memorable moments about people entirely alien to all of my experience. This may not be much like his later books, but it's a good murder mystery, specific about a time and place, with a strong viewpoint and tight, excellent prose.

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