The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)

The zip on the briefcase was the interlocking plastic flange type and opened silently. Inside was the folder with the black cover. It was the memorandum… It would contain all the information they could give me, all the names, suspects, dossiers, leads and theories they could cull from the whole of the Bureau files, a complete and exhaustive breakdown of the field. (p.20)

This is a cold-eyed, cold-hearted spy thriller about a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor tracking down former Nazis. The tone of the novel is dictated by his sporadic memories of the unspeakable atrocities carried out by the Germans against their Jewish prisoners. No laughs, no colour, no colleagues or clubs, no music or art or galleries – just a solitary man trudging the streets of Berlin, moving from hotel to hotel, and soon making the horrifying discover that he himself is being hunted by the very organisation he’s trying to expose.

Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor (1920 – 1995) was a British novelist and playwright who wrote prolifically under at least eight different pseudonyms. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote no fewer than 19 spy novels featuring the tough secret agent, Quiller, from Quiller’s début in 1965 to his final appearance in 1996.

The Quiller Memorandum

It is Berlin in the freezing winter, snow everywhere. Quiller isn’t his real name – we don’t find out what that is. He works for ‘the Bureau’ – we don’t really know what that is, either, though he explicitly denies that it’s MI6. He has a set of codewords which is the only way he has of identifying other agents, as well as a set of terminology not usually found in other spy books – ‘tags’ are people tailing him, ‘flushing’ is losing a tag, ‘doubling’ is double crossing.

We learn he was at Dachau concentration camp during the War. He saw Jews being murdered, he saw Nazi guards and officers at work, he has a scar on his leg picked up at Dachau, and somehow he set up a network smuggling Jewish prisoners out of the camp. He has been working undercover for nine months in modern Germany, tracking down ex-Nazis and delivering dossiers about them to the Z Commission which then arrests them and delivers them to the Nazi trials in Hanover.

A contact meets him to explain that one of the biggest names is back in Berlin – Heinrich Zossen, a leading Nazi who he last saw twenty years ago at the edge of an execution pit in Dachau. The contact, Pol, is from the Berlin office of ‘the Bureau’, otherwise known as Berlin Control. Pol gives him a list of other Nazis they’re looking for – a memorandum (the original title of the novel was The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller’s task is to track them down. Rather melodramatically, Pol says he is the sole man standing between two armies poised to go to war.

Quiller has a fortuitous encounter with a girl called Inga who, after inviting him back to her flat for a drink, tells him about her harrowing experiences of being a nine-year-old in Hitler’s bunker which has left her with lots of unresolved ‘issues’. She reveals she used to be a member of Phönix, an underground group of ex-Nazis.

A Jew Quiller knew from the camp, who now works in a germ warfare lab, Sol, contacts Quiller and is on his way to meet him when he is assassinated. Shortly afterwards Quiller is picked up by some of the Phönix group, led by the cold-eyed boss, Oktober. They inject him with various drugs and interrogate him.

(The use of drugs in interrogation reminds me of the similar scene in Len Deighton’s thriller, An Expensive Place To Die, where the unnamed spy narrator is injected with LSD.)

The Nazis want to know the location of Quiller’s superiors, the office of Berlin Control. Quiller knows they will raid it or bomb it, so he resists during a prolonged and hallucinatory scene, until he hears Oktober order him to be shot and dumped in the river. When Quiller comes to, wet, near the river, he realises it was a ploy. And it works because, once he has made it back to a hotel and cleaned up, he goes back to Inga’s flat seeking – as the narrator explains in brutally clinical language – the sexual release of the man who has escaped death. Only to find Oktober there and ready to torture the girl in front of him to get details of the Bureau, its code words and tradecraft etc.

Cold psychology

Though there are occasional flashes of colour, metaphor and simile in the writing, on the whole it is cold-eyed and factual. There is none of the humour of Len Deighton, the stylishness of Ian Fleming, none of the agonising theology of Graham Greene, none of the fast-moving excitement of Alistair MacLean, none of the subtle plot and counter-plot of 1960s John le Carré.

Instead the narrator is detached from everything around him, including himself and his plight, much given to analysing his physical and mental reactions to situations as if from a clinical distance. He liberally uses psychoanalytical terms to analyse his own and other people’s motivations.

I was helpless in a situation of rapidly increasing strain, and however much the ego and superego tried to rationalise and seek comfort or simple acceptance, the id knew I was in bad trouble and was ready to throw the switch and relieve the strain by blacking out. (p.117)

Everything is coolly analysed in this cold, detached manner. Even his return to Inga’s flat Quiller makes cold and detached by describing himself and her as mating animals. To say there is little or no feeling in a book which prides itself on its coldness is an understatement.

It was no good thinking, this is no prelude to love. There would be nothing of love. This was the prelude to something that we would each act out for our own reasons: the simple biological urge to impregnate and be impregnated, the needs of dominance, subjection, identification, a lot of things known and unknown, an act of catharsis to let the fiends come out and perhaps to let others in. The beast with two backs would lord the jungle for a time, then it would die, without knowing why it had lived. (p.108)

Twice Oktober captures Quiller and twice – after the drug interrogation, and after they’ve tortured Inga to try and get him to talk – they let him go without a scratch. Each time Quiller guesses that the Nazis hope he will lead then to Berlin Control – and so he goes wandering round Berlin refusing the temptation to ring his office or to post a message – but this blank and circular repetitiveness eventually stretches credulity. Basically he walks the streets for hours and hours with no purpose except not to contact his base.

A Modesty Blaise-style shootout would have lightened the mood and lifted the tension. And they’re Nazis, for God’s sake. Surely they could extract any the information they wanted from a helpless prisoner pretty damn quickly? The entire premise of the plot – that the Nazis have Quiller in the grip twice but fail to extract the simple information of where his Bureau office is – simply doesn’t convince. Why don’t they look it up in the phone book? Are we to believe that a network of Nazis based in Berlin is not capable of working out where the HQ of a Western spy network is based?

The novel features an elaborate double bluff where the Phönix organisation let Quiller into their base and let him see a big tabletop plan of a Nazi takeover of the new West German army. It is only when they release him that Quiller concludes the whole scene was an elaborate ruse to provoke him into contacting his Control, so they can find out where it is.

And yet, at the end of the novel, it appears that there actually was a Nazi plot to seize control of the army. And that the character Sol, who was shot on his way to meet Quiller, had in fact been working for the Nazis and been tasked with producing vials of fatal germ warfare bugs.

But, unfortunately, by this late stage of the story, I’d stopped caring…

Disconnect

There’s a radical disconnect between the majority of the plot – which consists of Quiller stumbling round Berlin trying to shake off his tails (or ‘tags’ as they’re called in this book) and getting picked up twice by the group and having sex once with Inga – between this very small set of rather dull and silly incidents – and the vastness of the supposed conspiracy to seize the German Army and then all Europe! The disproportion seems quite mad. There is none of the sense of a huge and monstrous conspiracy being slowly unveiled with a masterly sense of pacing which makes, for example, the early thrillers or Robert Harris (Fatherland and Archangel) so breath-takingly exciting. Excitement doesn’t seem to be Hall’s aim at all.

Memo style

The style often descends into memo or Powerpoint format. ‘Situation: Being followed. Decision: ditch tag at next junction.’

Quiller’s favourite phrase is ‘no go’, which is his stock response to umpteen calculations he coldly carries out on the odds of various course of action. ‘No go’ began to really get on my nerves.

Towards the end of the book, the prose reduces further and further to bullet points and lists of issues and actions.

Paramount consideration: protect the Bureau from risk. Worst eventuality: death and no signal sent, my people back where they began. (Who would replace me? Dewhurst? Disregard likelihood) Programme: send signal by direct phone if absolutely certain unobserved. If impossible, wait for the bullet in the neck and try to – (Disregard).

I suppose it’s an interesting experiment in style, and it obviously struck a chord in 1965 as The Quiller Memorandum became a popular bestseller – an exercise in alienation, an essay in a certain kind of masculine psychology, a modish assemblage of contemporary concerns in the era of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. But I found it a difficult and, for the most part, deeply unrewarding read.

Spy boom

The Berlin Memorandum was published in 1965, at the height of the 1960s spy movie boom. The same year saw the release of Thunderball – the decade’s most popular Bond film – as well as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Like them, Memorandum was swiftly turned into a movie, just a year after publication, in 1966, with a sparse repetitive screenplay by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berg. The movie accurately captures the blank and puzzling sense of dislocation of the book. I thought it was dire.

The TV series

Ten years after the Quiller novels began publication they were turned into a 13-part BBC TV series starring Michael Jayston, which transmitted from August to November 1975. I remember watching and loving this TV series, mainly for Jayston’s understated acting style, the same Michael Jayston who played the part of Peter Guillam so beautifully in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Sadly, the series is not on YouTube or available on DVD, though someone has uploaded the funky jazz-fusion 1970s theme tune.


Related links

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap the said VIP. After much shooting and a high-speed road chase, the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high-speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.
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