Amid his early accounts of George Smiley, Cold War spy, le Carré included this smart, spare account of George Smiley, amateur detective. An old war associate of Smiley’s, who edits a religious paper, receives a letter from a subscriber who thinks that her husband is bent on killing her. The editor ask Smiley to investigate the matter informally, but almost immediately the case becomes grimly official: The woman in question is found slain at her home near the ancient and exclusive Public School of Carne, where her husband teaches. Her corpse, in that setting, appears like the proverbial snake in a garden. Even in life, though, she had seemed out of place to Carne insiders, who viewed her middle-class ways and her low-church sensibility with disdain, and much of Smiley’s detection involves infiltrating the school’s culture and observing at close range its insular snobbery. Smiley, as a spy-cum-sleuth, ably contends with standard physical clues as well—a coaxial cable, a writing case, a man’s trench coat—and he negotiates with aplomb more than one abrupt swerve of the plot. Yet the author’s coolly passionate dissection of the English class matrix, together with the somber empathy shown toward those trapped within it, sets this work apart from standard genre models. As he does in his espionage stories, le Carré wraps his mastery of a classic escapist form in a mood that blends world-weariness and social anger.
JOHN LE CARRÉ. A Murder of Quality (1962).