I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.
A Murder of Quality - John le Carré
This 1962 mystery was the second novel of the author of the Karla Trilogy and, more recently, The Constant Gardener and A Legacy of Spies. At only about 150 pages, A Murder of Quality lacks elbow room. That is, it feels like the novelist had to restrain himself from exploring themes such as the lingering effects of WWII on those that had to fight it in particular but how the past haunts the present in general; the suffocating environment of public schools; religious differences between Church of England and Nonconformists; and the overall deceptiveness of mere appearance and persona. Retired spy George Smiley, for example, looks like “the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.” But the inoffensive appearance masks the fact he has, one colleague observes, “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”
To sum up the plot, Smiley is contacted by a wartime coworker who has received a strange letter. A woman who lives in a public school town writes that she afraid that her husband, one of the masters there, has designs on her life. Smiley recalls that Terence Fielding, brother of one of Smiley's colleagues in intelligence during the war, teaches classics at the school. However, Smiley hears that the letter writer has been murdered. Smiley is invited by the local police to investigate since the local chief of police knows a little of Smiley’s WWII exploits, wants to hold off Scotland Yard, and the middle class chief is not comfortable investigating the quality that are connected to the public school.
Like Maigret in a Simenon novel, or Campion in an Allingham novel, Smiley finds himself investigating the crime in a world with its own rules of manner and conduct. Also in the whodunnit manner, there are red herrings and odd characters galore. This early novel is well-worth reading for fans of le Carré, Alan Furst, and whodunit writers with a little edge like Tey, Marsh, Innes and Highsmith.