on 31 July 2014
There are two great British novelists that stand out in this genre. Adam Hall and Desmond Cory are my undisputed champions.
Hall introduced us to the fictional spy hero Quiller, while Cory brought us the enigmatic Johnny Fedora. Both deserve to win continued praise from the literary establishment, and I've very pleases to see them both seem doing well again through Kindle publications. Anyone who likes classic british espionage and spy novels is sure to enjoy this book.
on 22 November 2013
I give the novel 4+. Being the first Quiller novel, Adam Hall hadn't developed his thriller style and "the Quiller psychology" fully yet. Already in his next novel, the Ninth Directive, this is almost fully completed, making the whole Quiller series, in general, a masterpiece. Far better than Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, in my view. It's a string of intense thrillers.
I read several of the books in the late 1970th and 1980th, and knew then that I someday would read them again. As I expected, and hoped, the books (the early ones I have reread to date) have easily survived the decades since they were written. They aren't dated at all.
This first book is far better than the quite well known 1966 movie, starring George Segal and Alec Guinness. Not surprising, since a main quality of the Quiller novels is the inner mental state of the super-agent. You can't make good movies out of the "Quiller concept".
Super-agent aficionados: Enjoy!
on 4 February 2009
An early Quiller which is a gripping read and also a precursor to the anonymous shadow executive's career with the Bureau. There's a whiff of idealism that he seems to have grown out of by the time of the Tango Briefing. The film, while a favourite, is not as good as this book.
on 26 February 2013
You are a secret agent working for the British in Berlin. You are due to go home on leave, but you are being followed-by your own people, or by the enemy. A man meets you in the theater and briefs you on a plot to revive the power of Nazi Germany. You do not believe him, but you remember that one of the suspects mentioned was a senior SS officer you met with in the days when you were working as a spy in Nazi Germany. The next day you make contact with a beautiful girl who may know something. Someone tries to kill both of you.
Your name is Quiller. You are the hero of an extraordinary novel which shows how a spy works, how messages are coded and decoded, how contacts are made, how a man reacts under the influence of truth drugs-and which traces the story of a vastly complex, entertaining, convincing, and sinister plot.
In the past year or two I have tried, not very successfully, I admit to expand my reading scope to include a whole range of writers that I wouldn't normally find nestled under the "crime fiction" umbrella. A logical off-shoot seemed to me to be thrillers or espionage books.....Robert Harris, Olen Steinhauer, Jeremy Duns, John le Carre all seemed to fit the bill. Scratching a bit below the surface of the genre, I came across Adam Hall - a pseudonym of Elleston Trevor. Hall/Trevor wrote a series of 19 books about Quiller - a British agent; the first of which was published in 1965, the last in 1996.
This first in the series was the recipient of the prestigious Edgar Award in 1966, which was the same year a film adaptation was released starring Alec Guinness. I can't recall seeing the film, but at least now I've read the book.
It's a relatively short book at less than 200 pages, as a lot of fiction of the period seems to be. But hey, as I keep telling my wife, size isn't everything. Within the confines of this thin book, Hall manages to paint a vivid landscape of a cold, hostile, frightening city where the future of the continent is being fought for by conflicting ideologies with disparate interests.
Hall takes the reader inside Quiller's head and convincingly conveys the dread and psyche of a lone agent pitted against an enemy that refuses to accept that the end of the war brought the defeat of Nazism.
Stunning, thoughtful, sympathetic, humane - just a few random adjectives that inadequately convey my thoughts on this book.
4 from 5, though a week or so on from finishing it I can't quite put my finger on why it wasn't a 5..........scratches head in a puzzled fashion.
I picked my copy up a year or two ago, second-hand from some forgotten online outlet.
on 2 July 2010
I feel ashamed that I hadn't read this earlier, nor heard of it until Charlie Stross namechecked it for his third Laundry novel, The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry 3).
It's a tightly written thriller, set in Berlin twenty years after the close of the Second World War, with Quiller following the orders of the eponymous memorandum to hunt down a Nazi war criminal. The book starts with a lovely piece of misdirection, and with every page I just feel more in awe at how elegantly and efficiently the picture of Quiller and Berlin is built up.
It's also a very short book, a different experience to the monolith of, say,The Good German. That was good, but harder to grip, both physically and also in terms of the more complex plot. There's no flab to Quiller; it's not even particularly clear to me what he looks like, or why he bears the scars that he does, but that's part of the joy of this; what Quiller looks like is fairly irrelevant to the plot.
This isn't going to be the happiest book most people will ever read. Nazi war criminals are not exactly quaint now, but with sixty-five years since the war, there's a certain distance from them. They're either still wearing black uniforms and stalking across Europe with the Wehrmacht, or they're crazed dentists running through Central Park (or being hunted down while they try to clone Hitler). Laurence Olivier was at least avoiding being typecast by appearing in both Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil, I suppose.
But for a book written in the 1960s, when the wounds were still fresh but I suppose for many people the horrors of the Final Solution were not as clearly described as they have been by more recent historians, some of the crimes described in the book must have been more visceral than they feel today.
It's strange to think that when we think of British espionage in fiction, James Bond seems to stand tall above everyone else, when Adam Hall, Len Deighton and John le Carre have produced so much more that has more structure, depth and shock value to it. Then again, I'm rereading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold concurrently with Quiller, and that reminds me that le Carre does seem to stick to a certain formula. It's like a cynical version of Chekhov's maxim; if there's a person introduced to you in the first chapter, they're going to be shot in the last one. Or something bad will happen, somehow.
But James Bond, with his cartoonish appetites for stimulants, whisky, slapping women and smoking endless handrolled cigarettes, translates to a more pleasureable movie-going experience than Quiller or Smiley. Even if you were to decry the films as failing to be faithful to at source material, you'd have to admit that the source material wasn't so brilliant. It's still a shame that there isn't more of le Carre's work on the large screen, although again I suppose the complexity of it maybe lends itself better to television serials.
Anyhow, this is short, tightly plotted and has a lovely ending to tie things together. Thoroughly recommended.
First read this years back as teenager and didn't quite it, but subsequent readings have proved it an excellent espionage thriller. The writing is taut and fast-paced and we get the ferret's eye-view of his dangerous mission in the half-world of a divided post-war Berlin.
A confusing, claustrophobic atmosphere is created from Inga's flat to Phönix's underground Bunker. Is Quiller closing in on them or is Phönix closing in on him? Are the police there to help or hinder? Will he share the same fate as KLJ?
The reader is taken through the streets of Berlin, in and out of safe-houses, red sectors, car chases and attempted assassination in a novel which deserves to be up there with Le Carre's "Spy". Quiller does not carry a weapon as he believes this will slow down analytical thinking and we get the chance to follow parts of his "brain-think" which are admittedly a little arcane at time, like being in the head of a chess grandmaster; Bur perhaps that's what espionage is, a type of enormous chess match with human pieces.
Not until the final pages is it clear who is who and what is what. A staisfying spy novel which well repays the effort that may be needed to make initial headway.
on 21 September 2014
In 1965, writing under the pseudonym of Adam Hall, Elleston Trevor published a thriller which, like Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale before it, was to herald a change in the world of spy thrillers. The novel was titled The Berlin Memorandum and at its centre was the protagonist and faceless spy, Quiller.
The setting is Cold War-divided Berlin where Quiller tackles a threat from a group of neo-Nazis who call themselves Phoenix. Their aim is to bring back the Third Reich. Quiller works for the Bureau, an arm of the British Secret Service so clandestine that no-one knows it exists. It’s there to tackle the dirty jobs, and Quiller is the Bureau’s go-to guy. When their back’s against the wall, it’s him they turn to. The mission in Berlin is a mess, two of the Bureau’s spies have been murdered already by the shadowy Phoenix.
When Quiller arrives in the city his handler gives him three items found on a dead agent: tickets to a swimming pool and a bowling alley along with a newspaper cutting. The latter reveals a local teacher has been unmasked as a Nazi. Quiller investigates, but he’s being followed and has been since the moment he entered Berlin. The Phoenix group descend and take Quiller, torturing him to find out what he knows. Is Quiller going to wind up dead too? And will the world see a return of Nazi power?
Elleston Trevor wrote 19 novels in the highly successful Quiller series. They were so popular that in 1966 a film was made – the title was changed to The Quiller Memorandum and from then on all future copies of the book were published under this title, rather than the original. The film starred George Segal in the lead role, with Alec Guinness supporting and was nominated for three BAFTAs. The screenwriter, Harold Pinter, no less, received an Edgar nomination. There was also a TV series in 1975. All of that, and today the novels are largely forgotten.
There are a number of unique elements in the Quiller series that make it stand out. First is the protagonist himself. Quiller is a code name. He is the true faceless spy. Because the books were written in the first person the reader learns very little about him, beyond his mission capability. We never find out his true identity or his history. Another is Quiller’s refusal to carry a weapon – he believes it lends the operative an over-confidence and can give the opposition an opportunity to turn your firearm against you. In fact, he is derisory about agents who insist on being armed. He also works alone and without contacts. That way there’s no-one to betray him to the other side. He’s lone wolf who lives or dies by his own actions – a very clean and principled approach to espionage.
What Adam Hall did extremely well was to get us readers inside the mind of an undercover operative. This is achieved via Quiller’s first person perspective. Our hero delivers a running dialogue with his own unconscious mind, assessing the threats, his potential responses, his plans. Hall also peppered the text with authentic espionage jargon and as you read you get to live the part of Quiller. For example operatives are referred to as ferrets, and that’s what they are. Nimble, sharp-toothed and sometimes they have to bite and claw their way out of a dark hole.
In terms of style The Quiller books are taut and written with narrative pace at the forefront. The sentences are generally clipped and abrupt, reminiscent of Simon Kernick’s style where not a word is wasted, but predating him by a generation. Another characteristic of Hall’s style is the ending of chapters with a cliff hanger. In the following chapter the events have moved on beyond the crisis, instantly creating a ‘how?’ question in your mind. But then Quiller retraces his steps in a flashback. A highly unusual and stimulating approach that draws us into the story.
Elleston Trevor (pictured) himself was a prolific, award-winning writer, producing novels under a range of pen names – nine in total! He also wrote across a number of genres. He published over 50 novels as Elleston Trevor alone.
Sadly the Quiller novels have fallen out of favour with the apparent end of the Cold War. But Quiller is an equal to a James Bond, or a George Smiley. He’s that good – try the book and you’ll find out.
Originally reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover
Though a fan of John Le Carre, Len Deighton and others in this genre, I’d never heard of Adam Hall until I picked the 1967 paperback of this out of my father’s box of old books. It’s an excellent post-war thriller. Not quite as stark as “The Spy who came in from the Cold”, and, 45 years on, the Nazi threat seems rather more fanciful; but it is pacey and tense, with lots of twists and turns.
The writing, at times, has a strong “sixties” feel to it, but this is a thriller that has aged well and is still worth reading.
Now I just have to track down cheap copies of the others in the series.
on 5 September 2013
I bought this when I found out that the author was also author of a favourite film, Flight of the Phoenix, and my childhood favourites, Deep Wood and Island of the Pines, written under the name Elleston Trevor.
The plot follows standard lines of spy novels, a series of double crosses by colleagues and deception by the "enemy". The interesting component in this case is the narration follows the thought processes of the protagonist, Quiller, as he lives through the events of the book.
It was an entertaining read but I am not hungry for more of the same. I did however fish out my battered copy of Island of the Pines, and was astonished at the asking price on Amazon for a second hand copy. However, I shall not sell my copy.
on 14 December 2014