A Murder of Quality

Oh yeah baby, this is George Smiley number two. I’m so close to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I can taste it. Yet it feels so far away because this book isn’t what I expected. It’s basically a murder mystery as opposed to the spy novel I was expecting.

Smiley is retired and gets a call from a friend about a murder at an elite boarding school. He gets on it right away because that’s what Smiley does, he figures stuff out, right away. In that way, he’s not much different from many spy novel heroes.

But Smiley, considering his outward appearance, is not your average spy novel hero. Le Carre, in fact, goes through great pains to portray him as overweight, clumsy, and downright ugly. I felt this in the first book, but not quite as acutely as in this book. Here is a passage describing Smiley scurrying up an escalator on his way to a meeting:

The descending escalator was packed with the staff of Unipress, homebound and heavy-eyed. To them, the sight of a fat, middle-aged gentleman bounding up the adjoining staircase provided unexpected entertainment, so that Smiley was hastened on his way by the jeers of officeboys and the laughter of typists. (pg 134)

That’s rough, almost mean. Le Carre also brings up similar sentiments when discussing Smiley’s ex-wife, a socialite who ran out on him and seems to have made a mockery of Smiley. This novel is set in his ex-wife’s childhood home and there’s a particularly cruel exchange with a socialite who, not acknowledging that Smiley is the actually ‘that Smiley’, makes note of how “quite unsuitable” the match was.

But the guy is competent. He’s a genius and has an admirable amount of spareness and frugality, in both his thoughts and actions. Here’s an example:

It had been one of Smiley’s cardinal principles in research, whether among the incunabula of an obscure poet or the laboriously gathered fragments intelligence, not to proceed beyond the evidence. A fact, once logically arrived at, should not be extended beyond its natural significance. Accordingly, he did not speculate with the remarkable discovery he had made, but turned his mind to the most obscure problem of all: motive for murder. (pg 92)

All this, I think, makes Smiley into an endearing, vulnerable, highly competent hero who I’m expecting to dominate Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’m just fired up for the book movie/combination sometime in 2012.