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“He knew mankind as a huntsman knows his cover…” #JohnLeCarré #GeorgeSmiley

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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…

“…he knew his enemy.” #johnlecarré #georgesmiley

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This time of the year is when I always fear my reading mojo will come up against a brick wall; it’s my busiest period at work (budgeting and financial year end) and so I’m often too exhausted to read at the end of the day. Inevitably, in periods of stress, I turn to comfort reading – although what I call ‘comfort reading’ will not necessarily be what others think of! Mostly it’s classic crime; however, I have been skirting round a particular author for a while now and this seemed a good time to embark on a reading of his work. The author is John le Carré, best known for his George Smiley spy books; and I was finally spurred on by a conversation with fellow blogger JacquiWine, who is a huge fan and was very encouraging and enabling when it came to the concept of reading le Carré! The spy genre is not completely unknown to me – I have read and very much enjoyed Eric Ambler, for example, and also the spy novels of Agatha Christie. However, it’s obviously *classic* spy writing I’m drawn to, and Jacqui was very reassuring when it came to convincing me le Carré fell into this category!

Being the pedant I am, I do of course feel the need to read in order… So despite the fact that le Carré‘s second novel, “A Murder of Quality” is actually a murder mystery rather than a spy novel (so theoretically more appealing to me), I wanted to begin at the beginning, and that is with “Call for the Dead”, published in 1961. The book introduces le Carré‘s best-known protagonist, George Smiley, and begins with a chapter introducing him – and by the end of that, I was totally hooked on le Carré‘s writing!

The book is set in post-war London, and Smiley works for the Circus, a fictional division of the secret service. Like many of his colleagues, he has wartime experience of spying and a network of contacts that reaches back over the decades. As the book opens, a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, has committed suicide; unfortunately, he’s just been the subject of a routine security check by Smiley… Although the latter had cleared Fennan, the waters are a little muddy: an anonymous letter had been received concerning Fennan’s previous membership of the British Communist Party; Fennan has been on edge; and after Fennan’s death, Smiley receives a letter the man had sent suggesting a further meeting, which doesn’t tie in well with a suicide.

As Smiley starts to investigate, his suspicions grow, particularly of Fennan’s wife Elsa, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. What *is* the significance of the alarm call received from the telephone exchange? Why is the suicide note typed? Aided by a police contact, Inspector Mendel, and one of his subordinates at the Circus, Peter Guillam, Smiley starts to investigate – as much as to prove his obnoxious boss Maston wrong as anything else! However, as he begins to dig deeper he runs across some very dubious characters abroad in London, and realises that the case may have roots stretching back to his wartime activities…

Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a relentless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and controlled into being in every front garden, half obscure the pokey “Character dwellings” which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarfs indefatigably poised over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint the dwarfs, suspecting this to be a suburban vice, nor, for the same reason, do they varnish the owls; but wait patiently for the years to entail these treasures with an appearance of weathered antiquity, until one day even the beams on the garage may boast of beetle and woodworm.

And more than this I shall not say! All I will say is that experiencing the plot unwind and watching Smiley unravel things was completely compelling and a pure joy! I read the book (which is only 148 pages) in a couple of sittings because it was one of those works you really can’t put down; and it was *sooooo* good! For a start, le Carré writes brilliantly, bringing alive the setting and the characters quite marvellously. The seedy post-war London settings were wonderfully conjured, the characters vivid and alive, and I found myself transported back in time and location.

However, what’s also outstanding is his plotting; I love a story that has tendrils reaching back into the past, or chickens that come home to roost, or an old crime which gets solved later. There are so many aspects in this clever and complex plot that draw on this kind of element that it was a perfect read for me. All the characters were beautifully drawn, from Mendel to Maston, as well as the more minor characters on the wrong side of the tracks in post-war London. I do hope some of these will return as I love a series of books with an ensemble cast!

And I have to make special mention of George Smiley – what a character! Already, in only his first appearance, he springs from the pages perfectly formed and I absolutely love him! He’s no cardboard cutout James Bond type; instead he’s a flawed and recognisable human being, trying to do his best in difficult circumstances and in a murky world, and I can see I’ve got huge treats ahead of me following his career. My only previous knowledge of him was the fact that the late great Alec Guinness played him; but there were unexpected elements in the book, particularly the short-term relationship with his wife. I find myself wondering if that’s something which will recurr….?

John le Carré [Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons]

Anyway, as will be quite clear from my ravings, I am a le Carré convert (and thank you *so* much Jacqui, for nudging me in the direction of reading these books!) I can see myself spending quite a lot of time in ensuing weeks in the company of George Smiley and Co, as on the basis of “Call…” le Carré could well be the perfect pandemic escapism I need! 😀

(If you want to read more about the early Smiley stories, Jacqui has an excellent post here!)

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