The second George Smiley novel is an offbeat curio in the series and a damn good one at that. A unique entry because it isn’t a spy novel at all but rather an old-fashioned detective mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. Later, more celebrated Smiley adventures certainly have mystery elements sprinkled in (as Smiley investigates a mole within the Circus Spy agency) but A Murder of Quality operates outside the espionage community altogether.
Plot: Miss Brimley is an old friend of George Smiley (from his WWII exploits) and when she receives a letter from a woman named Stella Rode, who claims her husband is trying to kill her, Brimley seeks Smiley’s counsel. Unfortunately, though, it’s too late. The woman has been murdered and Smiley agrees to take the letter to an Inspector Rigby who Smiley takes an instant liking to—perhaps he’s looking into a mirror and sees himself. Rigby, Smiley observed, “Imparted a feeling of honesty and straight dealing.” And because Rigby had heard “just a very little” of George Smiley’s Service, he gladly accepts the help and Rigby and Smiley begin unraveling the threads of Mrs. Rode’s death. Or as Smiley corresponds back to Brimley, “So I’ll just sniff around a bit.”
Smiley learns Mrs. Rode was an outcast with few friends in a ‘snob culture’ surrounding the Carne College where the woman's husband teaches. Though how nice was the deceased? One witness to her character was dismayed by her constant habit of “deriding her husband.” Mr. LeCarre does a top job of entangling Smiley in a convoluted murder where almost everyone is possibly guilty of the crime. Evidence moves away from the husband (so why did the dead suspect him?) because, of among other reasons, the excessive amount of blood spilled at the scene and the little amount found on Mr. Rode. Also the murder weapon is located several miles from the scene and he wouldn’t have had time to drop the weapon and return. Other clues are unidentified: glove prints in the conservatory where the body was discovered and footprints that go into the crime scene but don’t come back out. Smiley and Rigby at first deduce it is a stranger who robbed her for her jewelry. But, if it was, why did he carry the weapon four miles and toss it in a shallow ditch to be found easily as opposed to throwing it in the canal. And the murder weapon is an oddity too: coaxial cable.
Beyond the appetizing, red herring-drenched narrative, Mr. LeCarre takes the occasion to routinely rail at stale 1960s English higher education with his microscope firmly placed on the fictional Carne College, but this obviously could be any number of schools of the time (it is a well-known fact the novelist has a great deal of loathing for such similar suffocating institutions). Early on Terrence Fielding, senior housemaster of Carne, reflects upon his pending retirement by comparing his work to that of a road sweeper. He laments that he “Entrenched a ruling class which is distinguished by neither talent, culture, nor wit; kept alive for one more generation the distinctions of a dead age.”
One of the joys in reading A Murder of Quality, is savoring all the little morsels of invaluable knowledge—we don’t normally acquire—about Smiley quite often from other’s perceptions. “Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did 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.” Another colleague describes him even more colorfully, “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for.”
An ongoing characteristic of the Smiley canon is his devotion (but one must wonder why) to his faithless wife Lady Ann. Or rather ex-wife because she has run off with a Cuban sports driver in the first book, A Call for Murder. Though Ann rarely appears in the series she’s a continuing source of embarrassment for Smiley. In this book, a socialite named Shane knows just where to hit Smiley when she says:
“The only Smiley I ever heard of married Lady Ann Sercombe at the end of the war. She left him soon afterwards, of course. A very curious match. I understand he was quite unsuitable. She was Lord Sawley’s cousin, you know. The Sawleys have been connected with Carne for four hundred years. The present heir is a pupil of Charles; we often dine at the Castle.” For a moment the noise in the room stopped. For a moment, no more, he could discern nothing but the steady gaze of Shane Hecht upon him, and knew she was waiting for an answer. And then she released him as if to say: “I could crush you, you see. But I won’t, I’ll let you live,” and she turned and walked away.
As Smiley chips away at the mystery surrounding Mrs. Rode’s murder, he exacts a revenge of sorts as the veneer of upper crust BS is revealed.
John LeCarre’s George Smiley series is not to be missed, especially this exceptional little gem.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts at Criminal Element.