A Murder of Quality (1962)
If you’re like me, you would have probably thoroughly enjoyed the Smiley Trilogy (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”). But I had never read one of the early books that introduced him to John le Carré’s readers, until now.
When he had read it, he held it briefly towards the lamp, his round face caught by the light in a moment of almost comic earnestness. Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him.
He had put down the letter on the small marquetry table beside him, and was looking at her owlishly.le Carré, John. A Murder of Quality (p. 28). Penguin Canada. Kindle Edition.
(For those that have seen Alec Guinness in the role, these words are a good description of him.)
In the story, Smiley goes to Carne, his ex-wife’s home town, to help solve a murder (or two). I sensed that the author was hoping to write a series of murder mysteries, à la Agatha Christie. This was his second book to involve Smiley.
Smiley’s relationship with his wife was always a mystery to me.
“There was a fellow called Smiley married Ann Sercomb, Lord Sawley’s cousin. Damned pretty girl, Ann was, and went and married this fellow. Some funny little beggar in the Civil Service with an OBE and a gold watch. Sawley was damned annoyed.” Smiley said nothing. “Sawley’s got a son at Carne. Know that?”le Carré, John. A Murder of Quality (p. 131). Penguin Canada. Kindle Edition.
True to form, Smiley doesn’t say anything, even though this statement was made to his face by one of the characters. It’s an interesting way for an author to give the reader the main character’s background in one paragraph. And it also shows Smiley’s reticence to respond.
In the 1991 TV movie of the same name, Smiley is played by Denholm Elliot. It was one of his last roles.
(And, yes, that’s Christian Bale in one of his earlier roles as Tim Perkins, head of house.)
So, did the visit to Smiley’s wife’s home village affect him?
As the train pulled slowly out of Carne and one by one the familiar landmarks disappeared into the cold February mist, George Smiley was filled with a feeling of relief. He hadn’t wanted to come, he knew that. He’d been afraid of the place where his wife had spent her childhood, afraid to see the fields where she had lived. But he had found nothing, not the faintest memory, neither in the lifeless outlines of Sawley Castle, nor in the surrounding countryside, to remind him of her. Only the gossip remained, as it would while the Hechts and the Havelocks survived to parade their acquaintance with the first family in Carne.le Carré, John. A Murder of Quality (p. 133). Penguin Canada. Kindle Edition.
There you go: that’s how Smiley’s background was resolved. Aren’t you glad?