A Murder of Quality, John LeCarré (Penguin Books, 1962 {Penguin Audio: Narrator: Michael Jayston)


Murder-Quality-George-Smiley-John-le-Carre1Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre

In brief:

A Murder of Quality is John LeCarré‘s (and George Smiley‘s) second book, and is a more-or-less pedestrian murder mystery.  There are no spying or other espionage elements, but rather a bit of sleuthing by a retired (for the first time) George Smiley.  It makes for a good enough mystery, but is probably the weakest book in the Smiley canon.  If you like mysteries, this is a fine read, but if not, give this book a pass.


Dorset, England, post-WWII, possibly as late as the early 1960’s.  Set after the events of Call for the Dead, though it is by no means necessary to read that book to enjoy this one.

In Depth:

A Murder of Quality, by John LeCarré, could just as easily have been entitled The Road Not Taken, for in it we see both a George Smiley (and a John LeCarré) that could have been.  A George Smiley, fully retired from the Circus,[1] who passes his time as an amateur detective solving murders.  Thankfully, that road was passed. Oh, don’t get me wrong, this is a completely readable, if somewhat unremarkable mystery, but had LeCarré continued along this route, he most likely would have blended in with the rest of the mystery writers crowd, Smiley would have become yet another sleuth, and we never would have seen the best espionage novels ever written.  Having said that, this is not a bad story, just a bit unremarkable.

A Murder of Quality DVD cover Denholm Elliott as George Smiley John le CarreA Murder of Quality opens with Miss Brimley, a former wartime member of the Circus and present editor and agony aunt for a small (basically her) Christian Newspaper,[2] opening letters from her readers.  Much to her surprise, she discovers a note from Mrs. Stella Rode, the daughter of the paper’s more notable followers.  In it Stella writes that she fears that her husband, a teacher at the respectable Public School of Carne,[3] plans to murder her.  Knowing Stella’s family, if not the woman herself, Miss Brimley becomes duly concerned and contacts her former Circus colleague, the recently retired[4] George Smiley for help.  Smiley agrees and sets off to Dorset to root around, but arrives too late and discovers the woman is already dead.  Armed with a cunning mind and lifetime of espionage experience, Smiley begins an investigation of his own and soon finds himself in a web of nasty small town gossip and bitter private school politics that throws shadows across the story’s landscape.

A Murder of Quality Alec Guinness tie-in George Smiley Bantam paperback John le CarreTo this end, LeCarré weaves a solid web of suspects and builds believable characters and motivations across the book.  Indeed, his ever skillful style of writing carries the tale and makes for a decent enough read.  As a result, while it reads solidly enough as a mystery, and shows some elements of LeCarré’s genius, it does not have the kind appeal that most of his works do.  Indeed, it is probably the least successful of his Cold War novels.

Having said that, it is a good enough mystery with solid characterizations that brilliantly shows the kind of nastiness that fills the halls of education (both Higher and Secondary), and wonderfully illustrates a George Smiley that could have been.

If you like mysteries, it’s worth a go; if you like George Smiley, it is an academically fascinating addition to his repertoire.  If, however, you want a Cold War tale of espionage, this is not it.

MichaelJayNotes about the Audio Edition:

As per all my previous reviews of the Penguin Audio LeCarré collection, this is a marvelously produced book narrated by the talented Michael Jayston.

[1] The Circus is the name for an unidentified British Intelligence Service… most likely MI6, but that seems to carry out a good deal of domestic operations, normally the territory of MI5.  So, let’s call it MI5.5 and be done with it, or better yet, just call it the Circus.

[2] She is not particularly Christian, and certainly not Chapel the way the subscribers are, but it is a job and over the years she has grown fond of the readership.

[3] By Public School I mean, of course, one of those old established English private boarding schools that have scholarships that allow poorer individuals (the Public) attend. While I cannot remember if it is specifically said that the mythical Carne is really a Public School, it came across to me as one.

[4] For the first time.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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