John Le Carre chronological challenge 2

And so on to the second novel of the John Le Carre chronological challenge - A murder of quality. Published in 1962, a year after the previously reviewed Call for the Dead, Murder of quality sees Le Carre still trying to settle into the genre that will suit him best. If Call for the Dead was a murder mystery with a good pinch of espionage, A murder of quality is most definitely a crime novel though some of the characters happen to be former members of the British Secret Service.

Rather ironic really as a useful preface to the Lamplighter edition reveals that at the time Le Carre wrote the novel he was working for British Intelligence in Bonn, and already had the next novel he was to write, which was to prove to be his breakthrough thriller, The spy who came in from the cold, firmly in his sights.

Murder of quality is not a patch on his Cold War thrillers, but there's lots to enjoy, and there are a few great characters, some of whom such as George Smiley and Ailsa Brimley will return in later spy novels.

A Murder of quality is set in that most English of institutions, the public school. Carne is a very posh school in Dorset (modelled at least in part on Le Carre's own hated school, Sherborne). When Ailsa Brimley, editor and general agony aunt of that most non-conformist of religious magazines, The Christian Voice, receives a letter from the daughter of one of the founding fathers of the journal revealing her fear that her husband is about to murder her, Miss Brimley is understandably concerned. A member of the Secret Service during the Second World War, Ailsa calls on one of her oldest and cleverest friends, George Smiley, for advice. What appears to be mild hysteria turns out to be something far more serious, when Smiley discovers that Stella Rode has indeed been murdered. The snobbery of Carne School threatens to stop the police in their investigations, and when they are finally allowed to investigate Smiley becomes convinced that their suspicions are falling on the wrong people. It will be a case that will test Smiley's own analytical skills, and his loyalty to former comrades.

As you would expect from Le Carre it's a well-written novel; and though Le Carre, himself, evidently has ambiguous feelings towards the novel, there's much that's very good about it. A vital plot twist reminded me very strongly of another novel, and I eventually realised that though Murder of Quality owes one twist to Ngaio Marsh's much earlier Death in a white tie, the original way in which Le Carre deals with the twist will, I suspect, be an inspiration to Agatha Christie when she writes Nemesis ten years later. Which goes to prove, I guess, that Le Carre was seen as quite a heavyweight in the world of literature even at a very early stage in his career influencing both Christie and Graham Greene, who were both moving towards the end of their respective careers.

Some of the features of Le Carre's espionage novels are also in embryo stage in this early crime novel. The background against which Smiley is placed is a dark uneasy world, with issues of trust, and where betrayal is ever present. Even the most seemingly robust of relationships can be torn apart as the murderer sets out to save his neck. It's not quite the bleak world of Cold War espionage that Le Carre would make his own, but it's nearly there.


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