‘A Murder Of Quality’ is a book fuelled by hatred and compassion. Hatred for minor public schools in post-war England and compassion for the people who staffed and attended them.
Le Carré vivisects the vanity, cruelty, mediocrity and relentless conformity of an English boarding school with an insight that only someone who has suffered through such a place can bring. He shows that the school is more concerned with instilling loyalty to one’s class and a belief in one’s superiority and entitlement than it is with either educating or caring for the boys who attend it. He captures the claustrophobia and myopia of living in an enclosed institution that turns staff and boys into inmates bound together by their shared incarceration.
Le Carré’s compassion for the masters and the boys is what prevents this book from becoming a polemic. Le Carré shows Masters who understand the hollowness of the life they lead, who know that the war left their school short on teaching talent and out of step with the mood of the times, and who, knowing this cling to the status afforded them by tradition and class. The boys he shows as abandoned by their parents, brutalised by their school, burdened with expectation and starving for any form of kindness.
‘At its heart ‘A Murder Of Quality’ is a good murder mystery., with a complex plot, an intriguing setting and a memorable main character.
George Smiley, a quiet, unobtrusive man with no positional authority, makes the perfect amateur sleuth to investigate a death at the school. He comes from the same class and educational background as the Masters but does not share their world view. He has connections to the local gentry but has no affection for them. He is armed with personal introductions to the local police and has access to the players that they can never achieve. Smiley sees the world clearly. So clearly that he has no expectations of anyone other than that they will behave like the flawed people that we all are.
Smiley is capable of both insight and empathy but he remains emotionally distant. He pursues the truth with a quiet, calm relentlessness. He doesn’t get caught up in the joy of the chase. He’s not playing a game. Rather, he’s resigned to uncovering the veniality and weakness and anger and shame that leads someone to murder and the unpleasant necessity of holding them to account.
The puzzle Smiley has to solve is not straight forward and its resolution contained a number of surprises which made me reassess everything I thought I knew but didn’t leave me feeling cheated.
The novel is only 177 pages long yet it is filled with clearly-drawn believable, memorable characters whose presence transforms what could have been a puzzle-solving exercise into a set of personal tragedies.
Published in 1961, ‘A Murder Of Quality’ was Le Carré’s second novel. His third novel, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’, another George Smiley book, established Le Carré as a leading writer of spy fiction. It seems to me, based on reading this novel, that if spy fiction hadn’t worked out for him, he could have gone on to become a master of crime fiction.