This weekend's season debut of PBS' venerable series "Masterpiece Theatre" looks like an experiment by John le Carre. The acknowledged master of the spy novel tries to transfer those skills to the whodunit arena.
Though the results are not entirely successful, "A Murder of Quality" shows that mediocre le Carre is better than most authors can produce on their best day. This two-hour two-parter, with a screenplay by le Carre based on his novel, begins Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, and concludes next week at that time.
To assist him, le Carre has brought along his most sturdy character, George Smiley, the reluctant hero of many of his spy novels, a man who has seen too much through his thick glasses yet still finds the motivation to apply himself to his craft with dedication and consummate skill.
Smiley is not brought to the screen in the person of Alec Guinness as in the television adaptations of le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People." Though this role will forever belong to Guinness, it is hard to complain when it is handed over to an actor of the caliber of Denholm Elliott.
Smiley gets involved in a small-town mystery when he gets a phone call from a former colleague, Ailsa Brimely -- played by Glenda Jackson -- who now writes a newspaper advice column. She was concerned about a letter she had received in which a school teacher's wife said she was afraid she would be murdered by her husband.
Smiley, who is somewhat acquainted with a teacher at the same school, makes a call of inquiry and learns that the woman has just been brutally killed. His interest piqued, Smiley manages to pull a few strings in the government and get himself quasi-official status in the investigation of the crime.
What follows is a rather by-the-book mystery-thriller. The private-school setting allows for a limited set of suspects to emerge. Clues and motives are scattered about the landscape like so many leaves tumbling from trees in the fall.
Among the suspects are the town's crazy woman, Mad Janie, played by Billie Whitelaw, the victim's bookworm of a husband, Stanley Rode, played by David Threlfall, and the warm, generous house master Terence Fielding, whose brother was a fellow spy with Smiley, played by Joss Ackland, as well as assorted philanderers and back-biters who emerge from the town's woodwork.
What separates "A Murder of Quality" from the run of the mill detective stories is the same sort of quality that made le Carre's spy novels stand out. Those books weren't just excellently plotted suspense stories, they were also incisive commentaries on le Carre's former profession as a spy.
But before le Carre worked for the British intelligence service, he was a teacher at Eton, the most privileged of the English preparatory schools. When he wrote "A Murder of Quality" in 1962, le Carre seems to have been taking on those institutions, blasting their suffocating structures, peeling back the layers of their small-town environments and finding hypocrisy festering in every fetid corner.
Once again with le Carre, except for Smiley and his determined non-heroic posture, there are few if any heroes in this story. The suspects who are not guilty of murder are still ridden with guilt; the local police are bumbling and nearly incompetent; the seemingly innocent victims turn out to live behind false facades.
"A Murder of Quality" is not on the level of le Carre's spy masterpieces. It lacks the density and complexity, the moral conundrums, the brooding presence. But, well-directed by Gavin Millar, this is still a compelling, top-quality drama.