This week I’ve been back through the mists of time to the early 1960s, and John Le Carre’s second mystery, A Murder of Quality. It features George Smiley, who has gone down to visit an English public school in the south west of England, where a schoolmaster’s wife, Stella Rode, has been murdered.
Margot Kinsberg, in a recent blog post, spoke of whether characters in crime fiction fitted in or not, and what that said about them, or the author, or the reader’s expectations. In Murder of Quality, everyone is clear that Stella Rode does not fit in, that she and her husband are of a lower class than the other schoolmasters, but that Stella has committed the cardinal sin of not even trying to fit in. The wives are catty: “She does such clever things with the same dress.” Because of the snobbery of the school’s staff, the reader is inclined to believe the best of Stella, and it is only near the end that the real character of Stella begins to emerge.
Smiley is encouraged to investigate by the local police, as Inspector Riley realises that the school will close ranks against him, whereas Smiley is of the same class. Fielding, one of the other masters, is related to a former colleague of Smiley, and knows that Smiley had “a very bad war”, so Smiley is admitted to the tightly confined social circles of Carne – which may or may not resemble the public school which Le Carre himself once attended.
It is an entirely conventional mystery, but already the closely observed mannerisms and tricks of speech are there, the sense of undercurrents and suppressed emotion that fill George Smiley’s world. It was more than 50 years ago that Smiley first wandered into fiction, but he hasn’t aged a bit.
PS My cover was a pink Bantam version, half falling off, the pages yellowed, but I’m too embarrassed to take a photo of it, it looks so scruffy, so I’m using the modern Penguin version as an illustration instead.