Classic Crime

John le Carré

David John Moore Cornwell was born 19th October 1931. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service and began writing novels under the pen name of John le Carré . His first novel, ‘Call For the Dead’ appeared in 1961 and introduced the world to his most famous protagonist, the unassuming George Smiley. You could say that le Carré based Smiley on his own experiences in the Secret Service, although Smiley was a lot older than his author back in the 60’s. By the time of his second novel, ‘A Murder of Quality’, Smiley is retired and researching German literature. This is one of the few novels where Smiley was to take centre stage. Even in his next outing, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, Smiley plays a minor. although pivotal part. In subsequent novels he was again to be on the periphery, although he does appear to be something of a puppet master pulling the strings behind the scenes. John le Carré’s third novel, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ was to become a bestseller, winning him the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Crime Novel in 1965. This enabled le Carré to leave the service and become a full-time writer.
It has been mooted that John Bingham, le Carré’s mentor during his short time working for the Secret Service, was the blueprint for George Smiley. Neither Bingham nor his wife, Madeleine was impressed.

Many of le Carré’s work have been adapted for TV and the big screen. His novel, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ has been adapted both for TV and film with Alec Guinness in the 1970’s and Gary Oldman in the film adaptation in 2011. The latest, ‘The Night Manager’ starred Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in the title roles which gripped people to their TV screens in which le Carré himself had a cameo. ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ will be released later in 2016. If you want to learn more about the man then in 2015 a biography was released by Adam Sisman. In September 2016, le Carré releases ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’, a memoir. As the man keeps much close to his chest and the rest appears to be obfuscation, it will be interesting to see what le Carré has to say (or more to the point, does not say), so we may be reading between the lines where le Carré is concerned. Having written about spies and the double meaning world they inhabit, you do wonder if Mr. le Carré is going to be quite so forthcoming!

Review: A Murder of Quality

Miss Brimley is the editor of the Christian Voice. She receives letters from readers with advice about such mundane things about pastry mix and other small foibles of life. They do NOT give advice on how to stay young and how to lose weight! Miss Brimley (or Brim to her few friends), receives a letter from Stella Rode. She has received others from this particular reader, but this letter claims Stella’s husband is trying to kill her. The letter doesn’t have the feel of a hoax and with her background training, Brim’s internal alarms start ringing – and so she visits the only man she knows who can keep a cool head in a crisis. George Smiley.

At his home, George who has some faint connection to the school, Carne in Dorset which teaches those privileged enough to afford the school fees. To calm Brim’s nerves, Smiley contacts Terence Fielding, a housemaster at Carne only to find that Stella Rode has in fact been murdered.

This is the only time le Carré placed George Smiley in what could be classed as the ‘straight detective’ role. There are no spies here, but a shifting, bubbling layer of privilege vs the common people. Those at Carne, in particular the tutors, raise their pupils to greatness, but also arrogance over those that do not ‘fit in’ or have a place within their thin strata of elitism. This elite superiority that lifts the pupils at Carne, cultivated by the masters there, will set these boys apart and send them on the path to greatness. Or will it? Are not the elite just as vulnerable as the weak? Do they not have their own little secrets? Is someone within the walls not prepared to kill to keep secrets buried? Here le Carré shows that the elite are not above debasing themselves in the cause of murder when it keeps them safe. Was Stella Rode as vulnerable as she liked people to think her? What about the husband she accused of wishing to kill her? Mr Rode is the victim of bullying and ridicule at Carne, by pupils and masters alike – could he really kill his wife? George Smiley visits the school in search of the truth.

‘A Murder of Quality’ is a very short novel but very compact. It has to be said that even with so few pages, le Carré brings to life his well-rounded characters, but I warn you there are few here you will warm to – the only one I did was Miss Brimley aka Brim and it wasn’t until the end I realised le Carré never gave her a Christian name! The most grotesque of them all is the tutor’s wife, Shane Hecht who le Carré describes as ‘…hideous. Massive and enveloping like a faded Valkyrie. All that black hair’. True to his word, Shane Hecht brings a spike of venom with her in every scene she appears, even rocking Smiley with a poisoned barb which she collects like a live fly from her wide and sticky web!

This book rarely gets a mention that all le Carré’s books down the years do. This is one that is like that tiny diamond everyone ignores but could in fact be the most precious one of the bunch. Ignore this little gem at your peril. It really does hold up a very unattractive mirror image on the privileged few and those instructed to teach them.

While reading this I had an epiphany as to why so many politicians believe they can get away with so many terrible things: tax evasion, fiddling their expenses, sexual harassment and abuse, numerous affairs. Over the past few years more and more dirt has been unearthed on politicians past and present. Having read ‘A Murder of Quality’, I now wonder if it is because they are taught from an early age that they are above such things, that they are untouchable and maybe even taught that they are above the law – and if caught out – then be as wily as you can! That is what appears to be happening in le Carré’s novel. It didn’t take me long to read this and le Carré’s high quality of writing lifts what could have been an average crime novel in others hands, and delivers something sublime that will strike a chord with ever reader.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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