The Striker Portfolio by Adam Hall (1969)

The gun smashed upwards into his face and didn’t go off because the blow was directly on the wrist-nerve to paralyse the fingers before the index could contract, but there was risk attached and I had to sweat it out until the gun hit the ground with a negative thud and didn’t blow our legs off. (p.114)

Elleston Trevor was a prolific writer who used a large number of pseudonyms across a range of genres. He conceived and wrote the first novel about the tough secret agent, Quiller, in 1965 and there followed 18 more Quiller novels at two- or three-year intervals until the final one in 1996.

The Striker Portfolio is the third in the series. I didn’t really enjoy the first two because I found the protagonist’s behaviour frustratingly irrational, and the pace of the novels grindingly slow, with large amounts of self-centred self-analysis swamping a relatively small amount of plot, which itself depended on too-random accidents.

The plot

Someone is causing a series of crashes of the latest NATO fighter plane, the Striker, in or near their German bases. If this were a normal thriller an agent would be sent to find out why, working from clues and tips. But the Quiller books immediately establish a strange, disoriented atmosphere, where Quiller is manoeuvred into asking to go to Germany and ordered to put himself ‘in their way’, even though neither his bosses nor we know who ‘they are’. Where there should be intelligent detective work, there is Quiller’s weird, robotic psychometrics: endless paragraphs speculating what ‘they’ will do and how ‘they’ operate and so on. It’s meant to be fashionably psychological and insightful, but it comes over as laboured and very very slow.

No sooner is Quiller established in Germany than his contact is thrown out a hotel window, it’s made to look like suicide, but isn’t.

Then Quiller gets caught up in a car ‘tagging’, which sees him forced into a cul de sac, from which he is taken by gunpoint to a wrecked car lot, where he just manages to escape being shot by dodging the bullets, climbing over barbed wire and running across an Autobahn between cars.

Quiller hangs around the Luftwaffe base where a forensic centre has been set up to analyse the crashes, meeting pilots, attending a party, being propositioned by one of the wives.

Quiller makes contact with the defector (I didn’t understand how) who is visibly terrified, and manages to mention a clockmaker’s shop in a little town named Neueberg. Almost immediately two men arrive at the motel bar where they’re talking, and take the defector (Bendikt) upstairs (why doesn’t Quiller intervene?) and when he goes up to his room 15 minutes later, Quiller finds the defector strangled to death and his room trashed.

Quiller gets into his car in the car park (worrying it might be booby-trapped), drives out onto the road heading north only to realise he’s being followed by a huge Mercedes. He tries several U-turns at high speed on the empty mountain road but eventually the Mercedes catches up with him and pushes him off the road and into the trees. High speed car crash!

Quiller survives the crash, crawls out of the wreck, flags down a car and makes it to the flat of the pilot’s wife whose proposition he turned down earlier. He phones his director from her place and arranges for new car and papers. Walks to an A&E department to get stitched up, walks to the car and sets off for more driving round. He’s stopped at a police checkpoint and what should be a tense moment is the opportunity for several pages explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other countries’ agencies.

Quiller drives to the clockmaker’s shop in Neueberg which the dead defector mentioned, and hasn’t been casing it for long before one of the assassins from the early scene in the junk car lot turns up, is inside for an hour or so. When he leaves, Quiller ‘tags’ him on a midnight drive through forest down to a spooky abandoned sector of the border with East Germany.

Quiller follows the assassin to his rendezvous the other side of the border, and is picked up by East German security – featuring the stereotypical gorgeous Nazi-turned-Communist Ice Maiden of every boy’s fantasies. Despite trying to bluff it as one of their own agents, the East Germans know exactly who Quiller is and lock him up in an insane asylum used for ‘re-educating’ dissidents. This is done by the simple expedient of feeding salty food and denying any kind of liquid. In his detached, clinical way the narrator observes his own rapid mental decline until, after a few days, he is hallucinating water everywhere.

Five or so days into Quiller’s ‘torture’ he (and the reader) is surprised when the door is opened not by a security guard but by a ‘friend’ who gives him water and helps him escape through the asylum wire. Quiller stumbles across fields and – amazingly – comes across the Ice Maiden with her car. She drives him to the frontier and tells the story. Within the asylum is a cell (Die Zelle) itself separate from the East German state, dedicated to creating a new, unified Germany. They know the Americans won’t allow this while West Germany is a heavily-armed part of NATO. Therefore the plot to crash high-profile planes is designed to get America to withdraw Germany’s NATO membership.

The Ice Maiden – Helda – lists the key members of Die Zelle, who drive from the asylum to Berlin for a monthly conference. She drops Quiller where the Ostis collected him and he stumbles through the wire and is picked up by British soldiers. Once tidied up, Quiller is able to pass all this information on to his director, Ferris. The British intelligence response will be to drop special forces into E. Germany to kidnap the Zelle leaders on their monthly car trip to Berlin.

Quiller drives back to the Luftwaffe base and confronts one of the young pilots, Römhild, the one whose unhappy wife Quiller got involved with. Quiller confronts him with what he’s worked out – Römhild is the son of the leader of Die Zelle, who coerced him into leading the Striker-busting operation. His partner, Wagner, rotates around the bases and slips toxic pills into the standard pilot box of tranquilisers. At high altitude they kick in = crashed plane, dead pilot.

Quiller suddenly realises that as he drove up to the base he had seen a plane taking off. He sprints to the control tower and furiously insists they get the flyer to abort the flight and come down now now now. It works. The pilot survives. The guilty Römhild shoots himself. Quiller explains all to his director, Ferris, and then asks if he can accompany the drop into the East to take out the Zelle leaders. He wants to persuade the Ice Maiden to come back out with him. Aaaah.

Quiller characteristics

Tagging

My heart sank through my boots when I saw that Quiller’s instructions are – once again – to vaguely get in the way of ‘the adverse party’ without knowing who they are or why. This involves – just like the previous two novels, loads of bloody ‘tagging’ ie you following ‘them’ and ‘them’ following you, and both trying to ‘flush’ the other ie lose them. He tags the adverse party around Hanover. He tags the assassin from Neueberg to the border.

It was No go

And my heart also sank when I read this phrase, which I will now forever associate with the intense frustration of reading Quiller’s wordy, self-conscious narrator as he considers various options and then concludes ‘it was no go’. Again and again and again.

  • A pilot’s wife offers herself to him ‘but it was no go’.
  • He toys with shooting his car seat backwards into the man sitting in the back holding a gun to his head ‘but it’s no go’.
  • He considers the life of a defector: ‘They see quite suddenly that it’s no go.’
  • The defector is killed: Quiller phones London to say: ‘I made contact. But it was no go.’
  • ‘Even if they sent the best man in the Bureau he still wouldn’t be one hundred per cent reliable. No one is. It was no go.’
  • They are interrogating him in East Germany and offer him a break. ‘It’s no go,’ I said.

Technocratic view of the human body

The controllers’ orders, through the media of his memory and his motor-nerves, were operating the fixator muscles of his finger so that it remained still, three millimetres from the end of the primary spring’s travel, two millimetres from the end of the secondary spring’s travel and the percussion. (p.30)

Wherever possible, the narrator reduces human activity – human intention – to a cold, physical description, to a clinical, detached observation of the self, of ‘the organism’, as of a specimen. A very male manoeuvre.

Whatever I now possessed they were going to arrange that it would shortly amount to no more than a pattern of memory traces fading on the surface of a dead cortex. (p.70)

In a way the narrator doesn’t just do spy things, the narration amounts to a tedious running commentary about the state of his mind and body, while he is doing spy things.

The dread had passed. Perhaps it had been automatically set up by the organism in its own defence. The situation was dangerous and could be mortal but the necessity of working out the mechanics hadn’t allowed the onset of base fear: and a situation becomes more dangerous if there is no fear present to alert the nerves and prepare the body. Blood should be drawn to the internal organs, draining from the digestive and secretory glands and skin by contraction of the arterioles so that the heart, brain and muscles can be fed. Breathing should quicken so that the muscles can be given an oxygen reserve. The eyes should dilate, admitting more light. (p.74)

Yes, it’s not so much a spy novel, as a combined psychologist’s, biologist’s and training instructor’s commentary on a spy novel. In fact, when the narrator pretends in the early part of the novel to be a psychologist in order to interview the Luftwaffe base staff and pilots, it is in fact just a natural extension of his everyday clinical approach. The more I read of this detached, observational style, the more I realised it’s a way of avoiding any human interaction at all.

In cases like this there is a defeat mechanism: the psychic system suddenly can’t take any more because it’s overloaded. (p.66)

If you like this approach, page after page analysing the reactions of the human mind and body to stressful situations and how to train them to cope with being tagged and threatened with guns, then you’ll like this book.

The whole of the organism was prepared to arrange its survival if it could: run, fight, beat out flames, bind blood in with a tourniquet, free itself from wreckage. The components were immediately available: nerve, sinew, gas-interchange process, adrenalin supply. Intelligence alone was absent. The organism had to be told what to do, and nothing knew. (p.79)

He never uses ‘my’, referring to his mind or body or their parts, when he could use ‘the’ instead, distancing his own experiences from his controlling mind. He goes out of his way to dehumanise himself at every opportunity.

There was pain in the organism but not enough to limit movement…Quite a lot of the organism was coping well enough… the right upper forearm was still in the healing stage and the left hand wanted stitches and the rib-cage and shoulders were bruised…The subconscious had been working busily during the crisis and now it presented its findings… The memory had had to pull it out of some very cold storage… After the first few kilometres I could feel the ciliary muscles contracting and relaxing… Nervous hallucinations set in after thirty minutes or so… The will-power was coming into its own at this stage: the body had at last recognised that things were serious…

In every one of the sentences above he’s referring to his body, fore-arm, memory, and so on., but treating them like specimens in a bottle.

Brain-think / stomach-think

One of the countless ways he psychologises every situation is frequently dividing his thoughts into brain-think or stomach-think, permanently trying to conquer the latter which is regularly telling him to run or do the simple, instinctive thing. When you think about it, a pretty crude division. ‘The little animal brain inside the back of my skull was snivelling about the risk.’ (p.76)

It had been mostly stomach-think, not brain-think: the instinctive need of a trapped animal to free itself, the temptation to go as the hare had gone, ears flat and feet together. Brain-think had warned me. (p.98)

Deliberate obscurity

This, the third Quiller novel, seems to have taken a leaf out of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels, in using deliberately obscure juxtapositions. But Deighton does it with tremendous style and humour. Hall does it dead. There is no life, humour or colour to these concrete-grey texts. Chapter Seven begins:

It happened at precisely 0951 hours: I checked my watch from habit.
‘She is beautiful.’ The manager nodded.
Most of them had gone, much earlier. (p.53)

Takes a while to figure out what each of these three sentences refer to, none of them actually very interesting (there’s another crash at 0951, the manager also sells china figurines and is in the middle of showing Quiller one, the motel is empty because most of the guests have gone.)

Training manual

Vast swathes of the text don’t tell you anything about the plot or story at all. They tell you about what it’s like to be a spy, to work in stressful situations, how to control your body, your thoughts, your subconscious mind, how to use various guns, how to escape from a car covered by two men with guns, about the psychology of being a defector, a detailed comparison of the specs of a Mercedes and an NSU, about the application of psychology to the stress experienced by fighter pilots, and so on and so on. Reams of top advice.

Never destroy a mike: it can sometimes be used to carry false information. (p.132)

There is as much lecturing as plot in the book. Large chunks read like paraphrases of the Bureau’s operational manual, including a long passage explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other national agencies.

Of course the Bureau could do nothing officially: it doesn’t exist. But no network on a world scale is ever isolated: there’s always a fringe overlap especially when something big is on the programme and any given agency will bump elbows with most organisations from the national civil police authorities up through the CID, Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and various select departments whose chiefs are known only to the PM and Home Secretary. On an overseas mission you won’t get far before you cross lines with the SID, the CIA or the Deuxième Bureau according to the area being worked. (p.100)

There are two pages like this, giving a detailed breakdown of working relations between the Bureau and other national and international agencies. And what is our man doing at the time? What prompts this disquisition? He has been stopped in a police roadblock set up following the discovery of the body of the murdered defector, Benedikt, and he is showing his false papers claiming he is a German mechanic to the police. Ie it should be a moment of drama and tension, but Hall’s texts routinely translate suspense into scads of technical and scientifically objective description. Sometimes the techno-precision can be a little laughable.

I had slept from early morning till one o’clock and was ninety-eight per cent alert and two per cent under the continuing influence of the barometric pressure. (p.105)

Conclusion

So, although it is obviously a spy novel in design and specification, the actual reading experience is more like reading the creepy diary of a disturbed and unhinged man, obsessed with monitoring, measuring and testing his own mental and physical reactions, to the almost complete neglect of any normal interaction with other human beings.

Although marketed as a spy novel – and although my summary of the plot makes it sound pretty good – it’s actually like reading an account of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, it is almost autistic in the sense the narrator gives of being locked in his own body and mind and super-obsessed with the slightest twitch of either of them, finding patterns, incapable of communicating fluently with other characters in the novel and, arguably, with the reader.They are unpleasantly claustrophobic to read.

Which is why I won’t be reading any more Quiller novels. The covers say: spy fun; the texts themselves turn out to be – no go.

Related links

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

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 him. 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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