‘Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.’ A Murder of Quality, being the second George Smiley novel by John LeCarre

October 19, 2013 at 1:23 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

9780802714428_p0_v1_s260x420  A couple of weeks ago, a friend and former co-worker at the library made what I thought at the time a rather peculiar recommendation. Like me, Nancy is a crime fiction buff, and she knows my taste pretty well. She assured me that unlike the espionage novels for which John LeCarre is justly famous, A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, is actually a mystery, and a fairly traditional one at that. The events of the novel take place at Carne, an exclusive boys’ school on England’s South Coast.

Now I just love crime fiction set in academia, so I decided to take Nancy up on her suggestion. And I’m very glad  that I did.

For this reader, one of the primary attraction of this novel lay in the opportunity it provided to know George Smiley in his early years. LeCarre indicates, however, that his famous creation’s character was formed very early on:

Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile – he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience and force him from the pavement. He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.

(My intention was to quote only  the first part of this paragraph, but I was so struck by this vivid passage that I couldn’t stop typing.)

Then there’s this rather more succinct assessment:

A stringent critic of his own motives, he had discovered after long observation that he tended to be less a creature of intellect than his tastes and habits might suggest; once in the war he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin, which seemed to him not wholly unjust.

A Murder of Quality is the second novel to feature George Smiley. (The first is Call for the Dead;  these are also LeCarre’s first published works of fiction, respectively.) There are a number of passages in this second outing where LeCarre strives to illuminate the character and personality of Smiley. Here, he is seen through the eyes of an old friend. Miss Brimley, editor of a journal called the Christian Voice. She is anxious about Stella Rode, one of the journal’s contributors and the wife of  teacher at Carne. Miss Brimley asks Smiley to have a look at a letter recently sent to her by Mrs. Rode. Its purport seems ominous.

As Smiley studies the document, Miss Brimley studies Smiley:

Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.

Call for the Dead opens with a description of Smiley that’s if anything, even less complimentary than Miss Brimley’s: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” That’s pretty blunt, I’d say – even to the point of being brutal.

One of the strangest aspects of George Smiley’s back story concerns his virtually inexplicable marriage to Lady Ann Sercomb, a lofty, high born beauty who stayed with him for two years before running away with a Cuban racing car driver. I’m getting ready to read Call for  the Dead, and I confess I’m curious as to whether I’ll be further enlightened as to how this odd and patently doomed pairing came about.

Quite apart from Smiley himself, A Murder of Quality contains some memorable description:

The village of Pylle lies to the south of the North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the damp pastures of the Carne valley. It consists of a handful of stone cottages and a small inn where you may drink beer in the landlord’s parlour. Seen from Carne playing fields, the village could easily be mistaken for an outcrop of rock upon a tor, for the hill on which it stands appears conical from the northern side. Local historians claim that Pylle is the oldest settlement in Dorset, that its name is Anglo-Saxon for harbour, and that it served the Romans as a port when all the lowlands around were covered by the sea. They will tell you, too, that King Arthur rested there after seven months at sea, and paid homage to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of sailors, on the site of Pylle Church, where he burned a candle for each month he had spent afloat; and that in the church, built to commemorate his visit and standing to this day lonely and untended on the hillside, there is a bronzee coin as witness to his visit – the very one King Arthur gave to the verger before he set sail again for the Isle of Avalon.

I love  the way LeCarre takes you back to ancient times, and even further  back, to myth and legend. This is something that British writers are skilled at doing. In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan mentions in an almost casual aside “the pretty village of Ewelme, where Chaucer’s granddaughter was interred.” A single phrase catapults you from the mid-twentieth century back to the Middle Ages!

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I am not well read in John LeCarre’s oeuvre, nor do I make any claim for myself as a scholar of his work. But I found someone who is: Prof. Myron J. Aronoff of Rutgers University. He’s written a book, in fact, entitled The Spy Novels of John LeCarre: Balancing Ethics and Politics. Here is how the introduction to the first chapter begins:

Le Carré relates how he came to create George Smiley, by “putting him together from various components–either real or imagined–of my own situation, and adding the solvent of my own filial affection and admiration” (JHM, 1986:14). He suggests that he and Smiley were alike in more ways than the differences in their age and appearance might suggest. Among the qualities that he shares with Smiley are shyness, a desire for anonymity, and the fact that they were both intelligence officers and German scholars. Although le Carré had a turbulent childhood, Smiley had none. “You do not have to be a genius to guess that Smiley as a father-figure in my imagination was the very antithesis of everything that my own erratic father had been in reality” (JHM:14).2

(Click here to read further.)

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: "I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities."

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities.”

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I was fascinated by the insight into George Smiley’s character, but even aside from that factor, I found A Murder of Quality to be an absorbing read and a well plotted mystery. The seeds of the later LeCarre – the cynicism about people’s true motives, the characters’ bitterness at how their lives have turned out, the incisive and startlingly lyrical writing –  are present in this novel.

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George Smiley is the main protagonist in four novels besides Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality; in addition, he makes cameo appearances in several others. A complete list of LeCarre’s works can be found – where else? – on Stop! You’re Killing Me.

A Murder of Quality was filmed for  television in 1991, with Denholm Elliott in the role of George Smiley. I’ve not yet had the chance to view this production. Neither have I seen the 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Gary Oldman plays Smiley. But I think that for those of us who came of age during the Cold War, there can be only one actor who was very embodiment of LeCarre’s singular creation:

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

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