Sunday, May 19, 2013


Quite possibly my favorite George Orwell essay is "Such, Such Were the Joys" in which our man Eric Blair recalls his days as a sort of charity case at a posh English boarding school that thought it was even posher than it actually was. He was miserable there, of course; one can see the beginnings of the great man whose every work is in some way or another a crie de couer against the banal (and not so banal) evils of collectivism. It's also, because Orwell was a prose stylist and a storyteller so close to perfect as makes no odds, a fascinating read, descriptive and honest and sort of bleakly lovely. His Crossgates was a place one survived, rather than graduated from.

It's hard, then, for someone like me, so in love with that essay, not to keep thinking of it as our man George Smiley, ex-intelligence man whose life is still very much shaped by his experiences plying his then still unofficial trade during World War II, finds himself in the role of cozy mystery detective again as he comes to a posh English boarding school, Carnes, to help figure out who killed a schoolmaster's wife in a bloody, gruesome and bizarre fashion. I always thought Bingo and Sim had more going on than poor little Eric Blair realized, don't you know, and I feel the little boy who would be come my hero sort of peeking around corners and watching Smiley at work throughout the book.* I wish he could have seen someone like Smiley, at any rate, to see that not all grown-ups are perfidious jerks. But of course, he wouldn't have grown up to be the hero he was if he'd had an easy, trusting childhood, would he?

But that's neither here nor there. Except in that it takes place at an English public school (like so many other novels and plays and films and whatnot, hmm? But as Orwell observed, for many people, their school days were the most eventful and dramatic and interesting of all their days. Poor benighted souls, they, hmm?) at which Secrets Are Being Kept. But of course, where in Orwell's essay, those secrets are largely socio-economic and class-based, in A Murder of Quality, well, there are elements of socio-economic and class struggle there, too, no doubt, and these elements are thwarting the murder investigation in true Town vs. Gown fashion, but... this is Smiley, dammit. Smiley! Come on, bust out the spy stuff!

News flash: there isn't much spy stuff, except in Smiley's back story and insomuch as it has formed his character as a careful thinker and observer and analyst -- who has a tremendous loyalty to his circle of colleagues from the War. One of whom edits and writes an advice column for a journal, and who received an alarming letter from the murder victim just before her death, a letter that may be a Giant Freaking Clue or an equally Giant Red Herring. And since the victim is very much Gown and the police are very much Town, the investigation could use someone like George, sometime academic, mild-mannered, unpretentious but trustworthy and obviously intelligent, to cut through the bulldung and figure out what happened.

Look, murder mysteries really aren't my thing. I always get a little depressed about how a person can be and usually is regarded as Only Interesting After She's Dead and only because someone Did A Bad Thing by killing her (or him). And yes, I know, a life only really takes shape when it's complete, i.e. over, and all that, but mostly I like watching lives in progress, decisions being made, actions taken or not taken, conversations had or suppressed, etc. There is plenty of this in a murder mystery, of course, but it's generally on the part of the detective, to whom the victim is usually a stranger; the detective is not, therefore, showing us the victim/stranger so much as leading us through a careful examination of the hole she has left and who might have wanted to make that hole happen. We're not really interested in the victim, but in the detective; the victim is just a means to the detective's end. See? Depressing. But lots of people like that stuff, and they're free to. It's just not usually for me.

But every once in a while, I like to take a look at a genre that I usually avoid, just to make sure that I'm avoiding it for good reasons and not just out of habit or of intellectual (or pretend anti-intellectual) posturing. And sometimes I do find that I've been unfair; witness my great enjoyment of Louis L'Amour's Sackett novels, "frontier tales" which, while not precisely westerns, are still more like westerns than most other kinds of stories, and thus are generally chucked into my mental "avoid" bin. I'm terribly, terribly glad I grew up to give those another chance.**

And so, A Murder of Quality, which basically seduced me into reading a straight up mystery novel, just out of love for its hero. Tsk tsk, Mr. le Carre. Now my guard is up, you!

That being said, there's still a lot to recommend this novel. As one could expect from a novel taking place largely at an upper-class school, there are a lot of moments in which the class-consciousness of certain elements of the community gets wickedly skewered. The best bits of these happen whenever a minor character, a teacher's wife named Shane, speaks, to wit:
"I'm never quite sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed cake in the parlor."
"Baptists are the people who don't like private pews, aren't they?"
Oh, is she ever quotable, is Mrs. Shane Hecht. And everything that comes out of her mouth will make you want to slap her.

Strangely enough, Shane is not the murder victim, or really anyone of any importance at all, except as a mouthpiece for the gentry, struggling to reassert their dominance over English life after the great social leveling of two world wars and not coming off well at all. No apologia for the ruling class, here (another quality, one might say, that this book shares a bit with Orwell's work, no?)! No, the murder victim is another teacher's wife, who comes off as a bit of a paragon of humility and independent thought for most of the novel, until [REDACTED] is discovered.

Through it all, Smiley is Smiley. Utterly forgettable, unprepossessing, mild, hard even to notice, but with a mind tuned by years of unglamorous spy work for uncovering secrets that makes him a perfect amateur detective. We only occasionally get a hint of what he's thinking, which I appreciate, not being a fan of the omni-omniscient narrator who knows all characters' thoughts anyway. Even when a nasty so-and-so like Shane teases him about his "unfortunate" marriage to a woman far above his social station (and who just happened to have grown up in the neighborhood of the Posh School in Question), he keeps his cool and just calmly lets her think she's gotten the better of him. She can sneer all she wants; in the end she has to keep being nasty old Shane Hecht (who, now that I think of it, reminds me rather a lot of Bingo from "Such, Such Were the Joys") and Smiley gets to keep being Smiley, knower of things he doesn't tell, friend of people of actual quality versus upper-crust Quality.

I know with whom I'd choose to pass an evening, at any rate.

*This is of course odd because Orwell/Blair was a little student many, many years before the period in which this novel is set, but those English Public Schools do have a sort of timeless quality to them, don't they? One would almost think it an effect for which they strive deliberately!

**I still avoid romance novels, though. Like the plague. Unless they're written by close and dear friends to whom I can't say no and find entertaining no matter what they're doing.

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