Title:                      A Murder of Quality

Author:                John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (1962, 2012). A Murder of Quality. New York: Penguin Books,

LCCN:    2012019593

PZ4.L4526 PR6062.E33


Date Posted:      December 2, 2016

Reviewed by George P. Elliot[1]

Earlier, John Le Carré wrote a couple of passable murder mysteries. A Murder of Quality has nothing much to do with spies, and is also rather routine. Call for the Dead[2], though it concerns the murders of spies by spies, is not properly a spy tale. The interest is focused on the British secret agent, George Smiley, near but not of the police, who functions in this story conventionally as a super-rational detective.

Then, in the celebrated The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[3], Le Carré wrote a spy thriller par excellence. Smiley has faded into the background. Suspense is generated by information withheld–not from the reader artificially as in a detective story, but from the hero as it would have been withheld from such a man in life. Formally, The Spy is altogether satisfying. Moreover, it says something worth saying about international politics, about the cold war, about a modern state’s attitude towards the individual citizens for whose sake it is supposed to exist.

But a thriller does not–by its very form it cannot–explore the depths of personal relationships, as realistic fiction does. Take Leamas’ love affair in The Spy. Because it is of considerable importance to the plot, we are given enough of the affair to make it structurally valid. We are reminded every so often that it will re-enter the story at the denouement, and this is exactly right for a thriller of any sort, whether spy or other. But by the standards of realistic fiction, of a proper novel, this love affair is too simple, too thin, too manipulated to be satisfactory. In The Looking Glass War[4], Le Carré has written a story with some of the suspense of a spy thriller and also with some of the psychological, social density of a novel. But the two modes do not mingle well: a thriller relies upon speed and artifice, whereas a novel needs subtlety and truth of motive, which are attainable only in meditative leisure.

The spy part of The Looking Glass War is, of course, excellent. It concerns a former military espionage department in London (small, left over from the glorious days of World War II) and its struggle to train one of its former agents for a mission into East Germany. The technical background for the mission is well presented. The action itself, once it finally gets under way, is tense and doomed in a gratifying manner; we are given just the right sort of sketch-portrait of Leiser, the special agent. Moreover, as in The Spy, we are given a strong sense that all this tension, duplicity and personal betrayal exist within the little world of espionage mostly for their own sake and not very much for the sake of the greater political good they are supposed to serve.

We are not in the least persuaded, nor does the author try hard to persuade us, that it makes any significant difference, politically or militarily, whether the Russians have installed a medium-range war missile in Kalkstadt, near the border between the two Germanys. On the contrary, we are persuaded by the story that the military significance of this installation by no means justifies the appalling betrayal of Leiser.

The betrayal is essentially human and not just political, since it is out of personal love for Avery (the agent who makes a preliminary “run” to check out details) and personal respect for the Head of the Department, not for money or any political idealism, that Leiser takes the job.

This much the story does and does well. But Le Carré also has novelistic pretensions, and in this respect — as a novel whose subject is people who happen to be spies–it is no better than it ought to be.

After a conventional opening in which a British spy is murdered in a foreign country, the novel settles into a long account of interdepartmental rivalry and the retraining of Leiser for his “run.” The central character of this story is Avery. Like Leamas in The Spy, Avery is a very sound man. He is high enough in the hierarchy to understand what goes into the policy decisions that he executes and that devastate his humanity. He is not high enough to make the decisions or to have been entirely dehumanized by having made them.

Avery is developed as a character far beyond the formal requirements of a thriller. For example, his estrangement from his wife, and her bitterness toward him for holding out on her in favor of the service, are of no real consequence in the development of the thriller. A touch of it would have been enough to highlight the depersonalization and estrangement which espionage demands of its servants. But Le Carré gives us so much of this relationship that it takes on a life of its own, yet not enough to be satisfying in itself.

The same criticism applies to the way the author handles the machinations of two secret services against one another. Avery’s group and the Foreign Office’s “Circus.” For a good half of the book this is the main conflict. Then, instead of developing the struggle in its own right, the author subordinates it to the spy tale which concludes the book. The result is that the novel, by being required to do less than it promised, looks weasened–and the thriller, by being asked to do more than it can, is in danger of inflation.

It is a question of emphasis. As the writer of a thriller that says something about the world, Le Carré ranks with Greene and Chandler. But as a true novelist he has a long way to go.

[1] George P. Elliott, “It’s the Spy Who Counts,” The New York Times (July 25, 1965).

[2] Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books

[3] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York: Coward-McCann

[4] Le Carré, John (1965). The Looking-Glass War. London, Heinemann

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