Ahem. I suppose it was inevitable, really, that as I loved my first experience of reading John le Carré, I wouldn’t want to leave it too long before reading his second novel, “A Murder of Quality“. I picked up both books at the same time, and frankly was so enthralled with the first one, I simply picked this one up and carried on reading about George Smiley as soon as I’d finished “Call from the Dead!”. This second work of le Carré’s is the one Jacqui recommended to me as a classic murder mystery as opposed to a spy story, and she’s right. Although the background of the characters is the world of espionage, there’s no spying here – just a delicious mystery to be solved. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“A Murder of Quality” was published in 1962, and finds George Smiley slightly at a loose end after the events of the first book. However, he’s contacted by an old colleague from wartime action, Ailsa Brimley (known to George as Brim); now working at the ‘Christian Voice’ publication, she’s received a slightly disturbing letter from a member of the family whose patronage of the paper goes back a long time. The woman in question, Stella Rode, is the wife of an academic at Carne School, a place with a long and illustrious history; but she fits into the place no better than her husband does, as they are both of the wrong class and the English Public School system is built on that… Stella appears to be a women committed to Good Works, throwing herself into helping the community and attending non-conformist Chapel regularly. This latter in itself created problems, as Carne is strongly Christian in its outlook; but even so, why would she believe that her husband wanted to kill her?

However, before George can respond to Brim’s call for help, Stella Rode is found brutally murdered. Fortunately, Smiley knows one of the masters at Carne, Fielding, the brother of a wartime colleague of them both, and so he’s able to arrange a visit to the school to do a little quiet investigating. Suspicion initially falls upon a homeless woman known as Mad Janie; however the physical evidence doesn’t support this. Then a schoolboy is murdered in a hit and run accident, and George has two murders to try to solve. As he starts to dig deeper, trying to find out what Stella Rode was really like, he comes up with some intriguing facts which turn his view of the case on its head…

And once again I shall say no more about the plot! However, I can say that Jacqui was totally correct when she thought that I would love this book which really is a wonderfully written and plotted classic crime novel! It’s a joy to see Smiley bring his espionage skills into use as a detective, and he really makes an engaging sleuth – in fact, I think le Carré could have gone off in a whole different direction with his books and had Smiley the detective instead of Smiley the spy. “Murder…” is as brilliantly written as “Call…” and it’s clear le Carré was a writer of great skill and power. He’s also a drily witty author…

The coffee lounge of the Sawley Arms resembled nothing so much as the Tropical Plants Pavilion at Kew Gardens. Built in an age when cactus was the most fashionable of plants and bamboo its indispensable companion, the lounge was conceived as the architectural image of a jungle clearing. Steel pillars, fashioned in segments like the trunk of a palm tree, supported a high glass roof whose regal dome replaced the African sky. Enormous urns of bronze or green-glazed earthenware contained all that was elegant and prolific in the cactus world, and between them very old residents could relax on sofas of spindly bamboo, sipping warm coffee and reliving the discomfort of safari.

One particularly fascinating element of the book is the portrait of Carne itself and its heirarchy; the Rodes suffer very much from their lack of status, with the husband’s Grammar School education being looked down upon, and Stella’s inability to fit in undermining their standing even more. John le Carré is particularly biting when writing about the whole Public School set up, and in a couple of afterwords to my edition makes it quite clear that he hates the Old School Tie and all it stands for. I would certainly agree with him; our country is still suffering from the fact that those in power are there because of their connections, not because of their ability…

“A Murder of Quality” was just as much of a delight to read as “Call for the Dead”; le Carré’s writing is excellent, his plotting brilliant and his characterisation spot on. One of the things I love is how he draws in little connections everywhere; for example, Smiley’s ex-wife is known to some of Carne’s staff which leaves our unlucky detective open to some snide little digs. And although the links with the past are perhaps less pronounced than in the first book, they’re still there with Brim and Fielding’s brother; the Second World War was still a relatively recent event when le Carre was writing.

John le Carré [Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons]If you’ve not read le Carré, I can highly recommend him on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far. And although the temptation is strong to start with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”, probably his best-known book and certainly his breakthrough one, I’m very glad I started at the beginning. I feel I’ve got to know George Smiley and some of his colleagues quite well already; and the hardest thing now is going to be stopping myself from going on a real le Carré binge and just reading nothing else! Very tempting – though I should really tackle the TBR a bit first…