John le Carré:
A Murder of Quality
Penguin Books 2011 (1962)
‘Carne isn’t a school. It’s a sanatorium for intellectual lepers.’
George Smiley, ‘retired’ from the secret service, is asked to discreetly investigate a crime at a boarding school of ancient foundation in Dorset, a murder seemingly predicted by the victim herself in a letter to a Nonconformist Christian periodical.
What he finds at Carne School is an establishment “compressed into a mould of anomalous conventions,” one that — hidebound by a veneer of religiosity — is “blind, Pharisaical but real.” It is, furthermore, part of a larger Dorset community that is composed of inimical groupings: town and gown, North versus South, class snobbery, different educational opportunities, differing religious traditions, even hypocritical sexual mores.
Smiley (down from London) is the outsider who has not only to negotiate social traps but also delicately sidestep probing questions about himself if he is to assist the local police in identifying the killer.
Our hero is generally known for his work with a fictional secret service but in this, only the author’s second novel, he comes across more as an unobtrusive private detective from the Golden Age of crime fiction, nowadays manifest in so-called ‘cosies’. What distinguishes A Murder of Quality, however, is less the crime-solving than its dissection of those tribal affiliations that postwar Britain was having to address, just at a time when old certainties were at the point of unravelling.
One pivotal moment among many gives a flavour of the different genres that le Carré managed to reference in these pages — crime, Gothic, literary, and social realism among them:
A dog that had not bitten the postman; a devil that rode upon the wind; a woman who knew that she would die; a little, worried man in an overcoat standing in the snow outside his hotel, and the laborious chime of the Abbey clock telling him to go to bed.
Apart from two named school students the school personnel that mostly concern us are the masters and their wives and spinster sisters. The wife of one new grammar-schooled member of staff has pinpointed her husband as her potential murderer, but is she all she seems and is her husband the perpetrator? What are we to make of the bitchy spouses and spinsters, the closet homosexuals among the senior teachers, the idiosyncratic local, Mad Janie as she is known? And what significance, if any, are we to attach to a clothing parcel for overseas refugees?
Apart from one or two supporting scenes in which he doesn’t appear Smiley is the main focus of our interest and attention.
Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.
Assimilation, anonymity, detachment are his modus operandi. As he reveals towards the end, “there are some of us — aren’t there? — who are nothing, who are so labile that we astound ourselves; we’re the chameleons.” It’s not clear if he is talking about himself or the murderer when he describes people who “can’t feel anything inside them, no pleasure or pain, no love or hate; they’re ashamed and frightened that they can’t feel.”
But if this lack of feeling manifests as shame, it “drives them to extravagance and colour,” without which they’re nothing. “The world sees them as showmen, fantasists, liars, as sensualists perhaps, not for what they are: the living dead.” Clearly he is no longer referring to himself.
Le Carré taught at both Eton and Millfield public schools, and was himself an unhappy scholar at Sherborne School in Dorset, clearly a prime model for Carne though the author’s brief Foreword declines to identify any of the schools. Though it appears his ire is directed at mid twentieth century institutions, current affairs since then indicate that this educational system has continued to serve its students — and the country — badly.
In that sense, despite the inadequate gas heating and generally antiquated living conditions described here, A Murder of Quality is as relevant now as it must have been a half century and more ago. At the very end we’re left with Smiley standing alone, gazing along the road: “But there was nothing to see. Only the half-lit street, and the shadows moving along it.” The outsider remains forever outside.
A novel that could be included in RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril XIV if I was participating. But I’m not.