John Le Carre’s ‘A Murder of Quality’.

It is one of the early books written by John Le Carre in 1962 and features his star spy – George Smiley. However is not really a Smiley we know and has nothing to do with the world of espionage. Moreover the BBC mini-series embedded Alec Guinness as Smiley in our minds and this version Denholm Elliott as Smiley is not really kosher. (Joss Ackland as the House Master captures our imagination far more effectively) In fact I am not even sure why it is titled, ‘A Murder of Quality’…

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Well having stated what it is clearly not, it is still worth a watch for Le Carre fans. Its redeeming features would include it being a classical murder mystery on the lines of Agatha Christie’s popular novels and it provides a riveting caricature of the stifled lives in a British public school where the traditions are observed but the ruling elite have lost their mojo and are muddling along in the rut of mediocrity.

Smiley is retired from the British spy service MI6 and estranged from his flirtatious wife Lady Ann. An old colleague working as an Agony Aunt for a Christian magazine seeks his help since a reader – Mrs. Stella Rode –  from the small school town of Carne has written asking for help as she accuses her husband – a school teacher – of planning to kill her. Smiley has a connection with the school since the House Master – Terence Fielding (Joss Ackland) – happens to be the brother of Smiley’s old colleague in the British intelligence during the war.

A bored Smiley is neatly arm-twisted into doing an investigation to check whether there is any cause of concern. Things move swiftly for the lady in question is found brutally murdered and the husband becomes the centre of suspicion. His behavior too is inconsistent and he is often at a loss to provide answers to the questions raised during the investigation. Circumstantial evidence points at him being the culprit. In fact the hand is so overplayed that the reader knows that for the story to have any meaningful twist he cannot be the actual murderer. So the actual clues have to be a lot of red herrings laid to mislead the investigators.

Smiley strikes a warm rapport with Inspector Ridley who welcomes his assistance. Smiley starts his act as a bumbling and self-effacing scout who gradually pieces together the real story. He interacts socially with the various teachers at the school and his subjected to some snide remarks on account of his failed marriage. (Lady Ann had spent her childhood at the school and so many are familiar with her current position). He learns a lot about the victim – there was real malice as people had enough reasons to hate her for pretending to ‘holier than thou’ and also for attempting to cling to a social status that was beyond her position in the provincial set-up; she was after all only the wife of a school tutor. But she in turn was somewhat a sinister character who took it all in her stride and there are hints of her blackmailing victims with secrets that she had ferreted out about them.

The treatment of the novel is like that of an Agatha Christie mystery – Le Carre has a striking parallel to P D James who started her career as a mystery writer with a Christie-like adventure, ‘Cover Her Face’. Possibly this phase of writing represents a stint at apprenticeship before the writer can forge ahead to write more complex stories.

Given the victim’s unpopularity there are enough and more suspects available for the crime though often they offer good alibis as well. Smiley takes a while to grasp the underpinnings and the town is shaken by yet another murder where there is an attempt to pass it as an accident. The second murder clears up a lot of the ambiguity and the murderer is unmasked. In fact his actions seem to have been less than coherent and a lot of loose ends don’t make sense. For instance if his intention was to frame the husband a lot of red herrings that he laid up don’t just add up. If his motives for killing the lady were specious they simply don’t exist for him to commit the second murder. So the plotting is enough to throw suspicion all around but the novel is no masterpiece in its entirety.

As as aside the novel makes interesting commentary on what was ailing the British and their decline on the world stage. Mirroring the tragedy of a fallen power in the world affairs, the elite are a failed and bitter lot who are making a mess in raising the young generation as well to face the new challenges. The ground reality is stark and depressing but apparently there are no easy remedies available to address the crisis. Le Carre has relied on his own experiences in a public school to provide a strong critique of all that was wrong with the System. That makes for an interesting reading and adds a unique flavour to the novel.

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