From the outside looking in Britain may seem a quaint, traditional, and overly polite nation that pleasantly punches above its weight. Others may see an increasingly isolated nation with delusions of grandeur in a post-imperial malaise.
Among the institutions that frame the national mindset, such as the Royal Family, the place of ‘public schools’ is central. Only about 7% of Britons are educated in public schools. They are not ‘public’ schools as such. They are private; attended and staffed by the elite of the nation. Their graduates go on to dominate the political, business and cultural landscape and merciless reproduce themselves and their advantages at great cost to meritocracy, diversity, sane politics and cultural vibrancy.
The inevitability of their leadership is such that a large part of the rest of the population are convinced that this is the natural order of things.
Le Carré was an offspring of these institutions and he hated it.
A Murder of Quality tells the tale of a schoolmaster’s wife, Stella Rode. A woman who lacked the social graces that Carne expects and attracted enmity because of it. Carne stands here as a model for Eton or Harrow or any of the other public schools like them. Stella Rode stood out because she was from up north, and she peeled apples the wrong way, and she was considered vulgar during tea with the other ladies. She was ‘earthy.’ This affront is compounded by the fact they know that she knows and she in no way wanted to change.
However, Stella seemed to know that she was going to die; in fact she seemed to have sent a letter informing a magazine editor that her husband wanted her dead. It’s the editor who contacts an old friend from the intelligence services to investigate. That old friend happens to be the irrepressible George Smiley.
Smiley, shy and retiring while inquisitive and observant, is the perfect conduit for us to meet the varied snobbish, brash and insular denizens of Carne. He moves among them with simultaneous ease and unease, socially acceptable but intellectually distant from the carping and pettiness.
Le Carré seamlessly weaves biting social commentary through this mysterious whodunnit. To say that things aren’t as they appear is an understatement. Le Carré is an expert at plotting and here, only his second novel mind, he is so assured you would assume this novel appeared later in his canon.
Le Carré might not like the ‘Carne’ of A Murder of Quality, he by all accounts doesn’t like the ‘public school’ system at all, but he knows it very well. Its a pleasure to watch him cast a cynical eye over a cast of characters very much informed by his experiences on the breeding grounds of the elite. The story, though perhaps suffering from over-cleverness towards it denouement, again displays Le Carré’s ability to build intrigue without fireworks and complexity with clarity.