“Obscurity was his nature as well as his profession” – The Usual Suspects discuss John LeCarre’s A Murder of Quality
Some twenty years ago, Graham Lord, a would-be biographer of John LeCarre, was making the rounds of publishers with a book proposal. The confidential document promised some truly salacious revelations. Lord thought he might be sitting on a gold mine!
Then came the threatening letters. Then Lord was served with a writ for libel. It became obvious that the subject of this potential blockbuster was determined that it should never see the light of day. Lord, who currently resides somewhere in the Caribbean, hastily backed off the project. When asked for further details by a Telegraph reporter, he demurred, saying, “I just don’t dare go through it again.” Apologizing for not being more helpful, he added, “Unfortunately most of the people he was close to are dead now, although I am sure there is no significance in that.” (One cannot help wondering – how sure is he?)
The basic facts of LeCarre’s early life are these: he was born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, in 1931. His parents were Ronnie and Olive Cornwell. He had an older brother and a younger sister. when he was five, Olive deserted the family, leaving the three children to Ronnie’s tender mercies.
Turns out that Ronnie Cornwell was a con man of epic proportions who purportedly made and lost several fortunes, was alleged to have been at one time an associate of the notorious Kray bothers, and spent four years in prison. Here’s LeCarre’s recollection of life with Father:
‘I don’t know how many times the bailiffs called…. “You have no idea how humiliating it was, as a boy, to suddenly have all your clothes, your toys, snatched by the bailiff. It made me ashamed, I felt dirty.”
Eventually David/John was sent to board at a school called Sherborne, where he experiences torments of a different sort:
Sherborne in my day had been rustic, colonialist, chauvinist, militarist, religious , patriotic and repressive. Boys beat other boys, housemasters beat boys, and even the headmaster turned his hand to beating boys when the crime was held to be sufficiently heinous or school discipline was thought to be slipping. I don’t know whether masters beat masters but, in any case, I loathed them, and I loathed their grotesque allegiances most of all. To this day, I can find no forgiveness for their terrible abuse of the charges entrusted to them.
It seems incredible now that such practices persisted well into the twentieth century. Fortunately, with regard to Sherborne and other schools like it, things have changed. Many are now co-educational and accept many more day students than was formerly the practice. Judging from its site, Sherborne itself, while still a boys only establishment, looks quite civilized.
LeCarre eventually went to Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 1956 with a first class Honors Degree degree in modern languages. He also studied abroad for a time in Switzerland. During all of this, he became involved in intelligence work, variously with the military, with MI5 and eventually MI6.
Of his childhood and its influence on his later life, LeCarre has this to say:
‘I was by nature a defector, a bolter. I come from bolting stock. My mother bolted in order to marry my father, bolted again when I was five, and stayed bolted for the rest of my childhood. My father bolted from his orthodox but repressive upbringing and kept bolting of necessity for most of his life – often from the arm of the law, and sometimes unsuccessfully…I myself bolted from an English public school at 16; from the burdens of bachelorhood at 23; from the twilight world of British intelligence at 33; and from a first marriage at 36.’
(That first marriage, to Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, ended in 1971. They’d had three sons together. The following year he married Valerie Jane Eustace, a book editor; that marriage, which produced another son, still endures.)
In 1986, LeCarre gave an in depth interview to Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times. This was timed to coincide with the publication of A Perfect Spy. In that novel, whose main character is Magnus Pym, LeCarre drew heavily on his recollections of Ronnie Cornwell in creating the character of Rick Pym, Magnus’s father. (Thanks to Pauline for pointing me to this article.)
As for his life at present, LeCarre claims it’s not all that interesting. His succinct summing up: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.” Even so, there is a biography in the works, authorized this time, written by Adam Sisman and due out early next year:
John LeCarre has written twenty-two novels, six of which feature George Smiley as the protagonist. (Smiley has a supporting role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The main character in that book is Alec Leamas, memorably portrayed in the 1965 film by Richard Burton.) A Murder of Quality (1962) comes second in LeCarre’s oeuvre. It is preceded by Call for the Dead (1961). For the complete list of LeCarre’s works, and awards and nominations, see the entry on Stop!You’re Killing Me.
I read A Murder of Quality because it was recommended to me by a library friend whose judgment I trust. When I at first demurred, saying that I always found LeCarre’s plots difficult to untangle, she reassured me that this was in fact a straight up murder mystery rather than a novel of espionage and was therefore easier to follow. (She was partly right.) Moreover, the chief investigator is none other than the redoubtable George Smiley himself.
Up until this time, I had read only two LeCarre novels: Smiley’s People, when it came out in 1980, and The Constant Gardner (2000). But like many thriller fans, I’m intrigued by George Smiley: his origins, his characteristics, and above all, his strangely incongruous marriage to the beautiful and inconstant aristocrat, Lady Ann Sercomb.
LeCarre himself has named two individuals as inspiraton for his creation. One is John Bingham, a fellow novelist and his mentor at MI5, and the Reverend Vivian Green, sub-Rector of Lincoln College Oxford, while LeCarre was a student there.
In his 1992 introduction to a re-issue of Call for the Dead, LeCarre has warm praise for Bingham:
John Bingham started me off, there is no doubt of it. John looked a bit like Smiley and wrote his thrillers in the lunch hour. Later he became, through no fault of his own , an Earl, a transition I can never quite forgive in anybody with a sense of humour . He was one of the good ones, all the same, Earl or spy: a kindly, gracious, astute man, ex-journalist, ex– Control Commission, intelligence professional to his fingertips.
Bingham, however, was more reserved in his assessment of his former protege. In a letter that has come to light as part of a trove of recently released documents, he expressed the belief that in portraying intelligence officers as fools and bumblers in his fiction, LeCarre was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In a letter to the Telegraph dated last March 5, LeCarre fired back this riposte:
Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.
John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.
(Yet another person has been identified as possibly providing source material for LeCarre’s depiction of George Smiley. He is Sir Maurice Oldfield, former chief of MI6, Sir Maurice died in 1981 at age 65.)
Call for the Dead opens with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley.” Portions of it seem almost gleefully nasty, at least to this reader (The Sawley here referred to is Viscount Sawley, a relation of Lady Ann’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. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
“Waddled?” Really? At any rate, two years after these highly unusual nuptials, the bride runs off with a Cuban racing car driver, leaving poor Smiley bereft. Never fear, Smiley; you have not seen the last of Lady Ann! (Click here to read the full text of this chapter.)
“Black Candles,” the first chapter of A Murder of Quality, serves as an introduction to Carne School. We then meet two students, Caley and Perkins. Perkins plays a key role in the story; Caley disappears without a trace. We next find ourselves at a dinner party hosted by one Terence Fielding, a senior house master at the school. His guests are Charles Hecht and his wife Shane. All is amicable on the surface – but only on the surface. Fielding obviously hasn’t much use for Charles Hecht, and he positively loathes his wife: “Shane was so hideous. Massive and enveloping, like a faded Valkyrie. All that black hair.” Fielding also can’t help feeling revulsion as he thinks “…of Hecht pasturing in that thick body.” (I have to comment: there’s something about the use of the word ‘pasturing’ in this context that positively made my stomach churn.)
In Chapter Two, entitled “The Thursday Feeling,” we find ourselves in London, in the company of Miss Ailsa Brimley, editor of a small but persistent journal called Christian Voice. She has just completed preparations for the forthcoming issue and is feeling quite satisfied with life in general and her work in particular.
Miss Brimley, alone in the Voice office, is getting ready to shut up shop for the day when a letter comes inadvertently to her attention. It is from Stella Rode, a long time subscriber and supporter of Christian Voice. She is now the wife of a faculty member at Carne School. The purport of this letter is startling and deeply disturbing: Stella fears that her husband intends to kill her. She does not want to involve the police in this matter, at least not yet. Can Miss Brimley help her?
Miss Brimley can. She knows just who to call. She and George Smiley had worked together in the intelligence service during the war. And in fact, they had both worked with Adrian Fielding, brother of Terence Fielding, currently at Carne School. Within minutes, Miss Brimley is in George Smiley’s flat. Smiley puts through a call to Terence Fielding at Carne and receives some shocking news. He, Smiley, must proceed to Carne without delay. The game is already afoot.
Several further points about this chapter, which sets the scene so dramatically for all that is to come. There’s a striking descriptive passage that occurs as Miss Brimley struggles to come to grips with Stella Rode’s desperate plea:
Abruptly she stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window. Just in front of her was a contemporary window-box of woven white metal. It was odd, she reflected, how she could never get anything to grow in that window-box. She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide . The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine . Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
Ailsa Brimley is of a type: the brisk, no-nonsense, competent, dutiful spinster upon whom others know they can rely. It is a trope that appears not infrequently in British fiction. In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, another such is Miss Climpson, who is given useful employment by Lord Peter Wimsey. Without her cunning and resourcefulness, he might not have been able to save his innamorata, Harriet Vane, from the gallows. (We of the Suspects agreed that Miss Brimley was a wonderful character and quite possibly the only likeable female in the novel.)
Upon arriving at Carne, Smiley finds himself in an enclosed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, rife with cynicism, suspicion and dislike. LeCarre has denied that his own alma mater Sherborne, served as the model for Carne, but that seems rather disingenuous on his part. Our group had the benefit of Pauline’s familiarity with British educational practices during this time. She herself briefly attended a girls’ boarding school – she even had a pen pal at Sherborne! And she made an interesting observation; namely, that often when children and youths find themselves living in a trying situation such as boarding school can be, with no parents nearby to advise and encourage them, they’re forced to fall back on their own resources. For some, that can be a strengthening experience.
In A Murder of Quality, we find more intriguing clues to George Smiley’s true character:
It was a peculiarity of Smiley’s character that throughout the whole of his clandestine work he had never managed to reconcile the means to the end . 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 bit later, in the same chapter, we’re told of Smiley that “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.” LeCarre goes on to make a general observation that “The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.” As Ian Fleming had already sprung James Bond on a delighted reading public – the first, Casino Royale, came out in 1954 – we can guess what probably prompted this comment.
And of course we still have the conundrum of Smiley’s wayward wife. The venomous Shane Hecht manages to get a dig in at Smiley on the subject:
“There was a fellow called Smiley married Ann Sercomb, Lord Sawley’s cousin. Damned pretty girl, Ann was, and went and married this fellow. Some funny little beggar in the Civil Service with an OBE and a gold watch. Sawley was damned annoyed.”
Smiley, apparently accustomed to this sort of mockery, does not respond.
Frances had an interesting theory about Lady Ann. Perhaps she recognized the fact that Smiley had an extraordinary mind and might be a fascinating person to live with. Unfortunately, she did not have the bottle to stick around and see if the idea bore fruit.
Someone – sorry, I forgot who – observed that for a book written in the early 1960s, A Murder of Quality reflected almost no awareness of the seismic social and political changes engulfing the world. In fact, Britain was just on the cusp of those changes: decimalization of their currency, decriminalization of homosexual acts in private, between consenting adults, and abolition of the death penalty for murder – all were shortly to come. So, in the sense, this novel reflects old mores and antiquated prejudices, about to be swept away (Although this is doesn’t quite produce the wholesale change in hearts and minds that people assume it will, at least not at the beginning). At any rate, when Fielding cries out, “They’ll hang me,” he has good reason to fear.
Pauline had with her an edition of Call for the Dead which included a foreword by Otto Penzler. Penzler was of the opinion that LeCarre’s characters shared certain traits with those of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. When Pauline first mentioned this, I thought it bizarre, but after the discussion had gotten under way, I think we were more able to grasp his point. I’ve already said that Ailsa Brimley was of a type; the same might be said of Felix D’Arcy and his sister Dorothy, Jane Lyn, or “mad Janie,” Stanley Rode, Shane Hecht, and even Terence Fielding himself. They’re real people, yet they are also exaggerated portrayals. For his part, Inspector Rigby was the world weary yet stalwart and conscientious law officer so often encountered in detective fiction, from Sergeant Cuff and Inspector Bucket down to the present day. What one misses in this novel and so readily finds in the works of Dickens and Austen is the occasional lightening of tone, if not downright comic relief. The atmosphere in A Murder of Quality is almost unremittingly grim, almost Gothic.
I had a problem with Stella Rode. The different facets of her character – reported to us, of necessity, by others – did not seem to cohere. Others in the group, however, disagreed with me, believing that she was sufficiently cunning to encompass contradictory traits and to deceive the unsuspecting in the process of exercising her wiles.
So, who was the most genuinely interesting, even appealing, character in the novel? One whose actions and reactionstended to be both unexpected and unpredictable? For me, that person was George Smiley.
I haven’t said much about the actual plot of this murder mystery. That’s because I thought it at several key junctures to be quite confusing. (The other Suspects present largely agreed with me.) Also a great deal of explication and explanation was piled on at the very end of the book. This happens not infrequently in crime novels, and I always find it to some degree unsatisfactory.
I think the over all verdict of our group was that A Murder of Quality was an interesting novel in many ways, but something of a period piece as well as a journeyman work for LeCarre. The novel that followed, his third, took the literary world by storm. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold signaled the end of LeCarre’s apprenticeship and his emergence into the world of spy fiction as a true master.
Suspects, I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did!
I loved this description of the village of Pylle, which lies adjacent to Carne:
The village of Pylle lies to the south of North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the flat, 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 low-lands 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 bronze 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.