Anomalous conventions

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.

40 thoughts on “Anomalous conventions

  1. I haven’t read yet any Smiley novel – only watched the recent movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and enjoyed it a lot. This sounds like a very intriguing novel, however, especially given the outside-the-genre flavors you mentioned, Chris!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is very much a standalone novel, but the references to Smiley’s failed marriage and his ex-wife’s links with Carne hint at a much richer back story; I definitely want to get onto the other novels in this sequence now.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, Gert, but first I think I need to read some of those other Smiley novels. I shall look forward to your discussion of his Brexit fiction—is the subtitle perhaps ‘The Full English Brexit’?!


  2. piotrek

    I’ve only read The Constant Gardener, and wasn’t impressed, but I loved the first adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the tv series from the 70-ties, and even bought an omnibus edition of the novels… which are to be read one day 🙂

    Definitely one of the masters of spy novels, apparently also detective stories…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew he was highly-rated as an author (my partner has read several of his novels) but I’ve never really been into spy fiction. However, as an introduction to Smiley this was perfect and I’ve no doubt I’ll be soon delving into some more le Carré!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Never read any le Carre, though I’ve come close a few times! As others have said, watched some of the adaptations and what a creation Smiley is – proper, thoughtful, rather withdrawn and unknowable. Really must read! BTW, I now have the two Diana Wynne Jones books you recommended waiting for me on my TBR pile. Thanks – looking forward to diving in 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I watched some of the Alec Guinness episodes when they were first broadcast but, in the days before regular repeats and videos (let alone DVDs and streaming) I missed too many to make much sense of what was going on. I did see that there was real quality on offer, though.

      Oh, I do hope you enjoy those DWJ titles, I’m never tired of recommending her as an author!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Alec Guinness was extraordinary – that sense of stillness underscored with so much beneath. Gary Oldman was wonderful in the Tinker Tailor film too. Lots of talking, but gripping stuff – you don’t need a car chase to make a film exciting! Looking forward to the DWJ, though researching another book too so have a lot of reading to do 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  4. It sounds good. I kept waiting for a ‘but’ and nothing appeared but tantalising hints and quotes, so I’ve added it to the long list of ‘wants’ in my diary. Reading the post was almost as good as reading a Le Carre, though – such a lot of subtext here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there are some nay-saying reviews, Cath, but there are certainly no ‘buts’ from me—I really enjoyed this. And the ‘tantalising’ quotes were ones that struck me so strongly I had to note them down.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Me too. I kept waiting for a ‘but’ and instead I read another deftly written review. I learn new words in context, as Chris always inserts eloquent words so effortlessly that one can tell they are part of his vocabulary.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve been toying with a Le Carre because of his Cornish connection but spy novels don’t grab me much either. This one might be the solution.

    (I’m impressed with your non-participation in RIP IV 🤔)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are references to Smiley’s background but here, with a mention of his ‘retirement’, he is focused only on solving a murder. I didn’t know he had a Cornish connection, I thought it was mainly Dorset, as he was born near Poole.

      No, no commitment to Rip XIV is envisaged at all. Not now, anyway. Probably not. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He lives in the far west of the Duchy. Very private man, gave a stretch of coastland to the National Trust. There’s a lovely oblique reference to him in The Salt Path – at least I’m pretty sure it was him, Raynor Winn doesn’t confirm and rightly so. (Now I can’t remember whether you have read that or not, Chris.)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Le Carré has also been on my To Read list for a long time, and I’ve been wanting to review one of his Smiley novels to consider for my post-WWII British novel course. This one sounds like a good place to start. As always, your voracious reading and prolific reviewing is humbling. Thank you! Josna

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I imagine this might be a good place for newcomers to approach Smiley, Josna—it certainly was for me! I must say retirement has been good for me to indulge in all that ‘voracious’ reading you mention, and I do love opinionating about the books I finish. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  7. How I do love reading John Le Carre – but despite having read most of the Smiley novels, I haven’t read this or the latest one. Something to remedy.

    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (in which Smiley has a small support role) is utterly brilliant and one of my favourite books ever, along with Tinker, Tailor… and Smiley’s People. You have some rich reading ahead of you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m anticipating a steady trawl through his other Smiley novels now, Annabel!

      By the way, the book you generously offered as a prize arrived this morning safe and sound, so thank you! I’ll let you know when I eventually reserve a time for an intense read, right now it’s Jane Eyre for me. 🙂


    1. I had no idea either but as this was only his second published novel perhaps he was still trying his hand at what genre to settle at. He was still working with the secret service when this came out but, I think I’m right in saying, left it four or five years later to concentrate on novel-writing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not a long read, Silvia, so well worth seeking out. This edition came out around the time the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was on general release and so has an interview with le Carré as well as a brief synopsis of all the Smiley novels up to then.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Another point to that “outsider” feeling comes from how certain faculty and residents treat Smiley. They hear his name, and they ask if he’s related to the odd, strange, “outsider” of a Smiley that married into the oldest family of the land. Smiley never responds to these questions–accusations, I should say. Having read TTSS before this novel, I knew about the marital strife of Smiley and his wife, and could feel the cut such questions gave him, though he never showed it to others. This seemed to add another layer to that “outsideness”–he is moving through a land intimately known to his wife, a land that still remembers her with fondness, and he is not welcome. Again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, Jean, and I shall be shuffling through any Le Carré novels my partner might still have on her shelves!

      Don’t you think, however, that most protagonists in stories tend to be outsiders? There always seems to be something different about them that distinguishes them from the community they find themselves in. In fact authors like Lovecraft, Camus and Colin Wilson had works entitled ‘The Outsider’ (‘L’Étranger’) and Kafka’s principals were examples of this in all but name. I’m sure your narratives’ protagonists all stand apart from the herd!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, excellent point, this! So often the protagonist is either new to the setting, or is in some other way disconnected from a setting they know well…and those in that setting know them well. And yet there is always that factor that causes them to stand apart. Yes, you’ve got something here…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve just reread the second Harry Potter book and I’m reminded that he is the perfect Outsider: a half-Muggle, an orphan, unaware of his heritage during his upbringing, new to the Hogwarts setting, sneered at as The Boy Who Survived, suspected of being a liar or an attacker, marked out by his forehead scar etc, etc.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. He really does hit all the marks, doesn’t he? Hmmm. You remind me I’ve been thinking about a little analysis of the series–not the Rowling debate or whatever, but why on earth kids and adults alike were totally down with reading such long books. What kept them hooked for so long? I think it’s worth exploring!

            Liked by 1 person

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