Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Murder of Quality - John le Carré

This was my first John le Carré; I chose it after a conversation with a charming elderly gentleman in a A Murder of Quality' because it was short. Long books put me off when it comes to authors I haven't read before, especially when it's a book outside of my normal reading choice which le Carré is. I was also attracted to 'A Murder of Quality' because it sounded so atypical - this is a murder mystery set in a private school with George Smiley in the detective role rather than the cold war thrillers I associate with him, but it does come in a neat little package.
bookshop (although I don't think he really approved of my reasoning) he told me the earlier books were by far the best, I chose '

What I really wanted from this book was to know whether I would get on with le Carré or not - I did so at some point will doubtless set about tackling his whole back catalogue - but what really interested me in 'A Murder of Quality', and what I assume might not be such a central theme in the spy novels is the way le Carré chooses to look at the British class system. It's a system that's still flourishing in much the same way now as it was in 1962 when 'A Murder of Quality' was first published. The BBC recently ran a thing suggesting that the old definitions of class were out of date, they identified 7 specific classes and devised a calculator so you can work out where you belong and whilst it's not entirely convincing it is quite interesting. 

John le Carré's own career certainly bought him into enough contact with the public school system, including Eton (where he taught) to be well versed in the manners and language of  the upper classes - something he mercilessly exposes here. Carne school could be modelled on any of a dozen important private schools - but not Eton or Harrow. It has it's customs, language, and manners as well as a staff mostly made up of old boys who determinedly drop into conversation how friendly they are with the local Lord whilst judging the quality of each others silver. There is however an interloper - a grammar school boy who's made it onto the staff along with his wife, Stella, who has china ducks on the wall and will not fit in. She's the victim but who's the culprit and will the old school ties be enough to cover his tracks?

Le Carré clearly has a bit of fun with all this and whilst some of the details (things like how a man hitches his trousers when he sits) were a bit over my head as class indicators most of it was unsettlingly familiar - oh, how harshly we judge those whose manners aren't quite our own. I would be interested to read a contemporary novel that covered much the same sort of ground - the closest thing I've come across was Julian Fellows 'Snobs' which was nowhere near as subtle or interesting so any recommendations would be gratefully received. As for 'A Murder of Quality'; it's a decent whodunnit but an absolutely excellent piece of social observation and commentary. 


  1. This isn't one of the le Carré books I've read but I would have to disagree with your old gentleman. I don't think the earlier books are better so much as different. Once the Iron Curtain fell, le Carré's subject matter had to change and with it the kind of plot that his readers had come to expect. I think some of the later books are every bit as good as the spy novels and would recommend 'The Constant Gardener' if you do decide you want to delve further into his work.

  2. He was a nice man but probably of an age where he was more interested in the older books. I will be reading more, probably starting with the earlier books and working along bit by bit.