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.

The 9th Directive by Adam Hall (1966)

To respond to the threat of a grenade-burst the sub-conscious has to evaluate a mass of data: the angle of the thrower’s arm, which governs the time-period from the beginning to the end of the throw; the size (and thus the weight) of the grenade – data which affects the time taken to throw it (the heavier the slower) and the degree of explosive force; the distance of the thrower to the intended point of impact; the height of the thrower above that point (gravity aiding momentum); and all factors pertaining, which include mass, inertia, trajectory, air resistance, so forth. (p.152)

Everything that irritated me about the first Quiller novel is here in the second. There’s a big stake – a Royal is making a state visit to Thailand and security have received realistic information that there’ll be an assassination attempt – but not much actually happens – Quiller argues with the supervisor who called him over from France to manage the project and spends a lot of time, nearly two weeks in fact, driving round Bangkok hoping to catch a glimpse of the assassin. Seriously. Just as in The Quiller Memorandum there is a steady, constant amount of ‘tagging’ or following, and counter-tagging, of driving round following other cars or being followed.

The tedium of the eventless plot is routinely interspersed with psychobabble masquerading as tradecraft and spy technique.

A simple rule of mnemonics is that if a face is to be remembered it must be forgotten in its absence. Attempted recall in the absence of the image is dangerously prone to distort it… Most instances of poor memory are examples of retroactive interference producing qualitative changes: the memory, goaded into conscious service, begins making things up. If left alone, the initial neural traces will remain absolutely clear, and will recognise the image immediately the next time it is seen – because no change has taken place. (p.34)

Psychoanalysis is crossed with the shiny new world of computer science to lace the text with themes and threads which must have seemed achingly up-to-the-minute in 1966.

The Maltz system of psycho-cybernetics breaks new ground in that it likens the subconscious to a computer to which the forebrain submits problems for resolution. Some of its concepts derive from accepted disciplines including that of the sleep processes. (p.42)

And, just as there is a detailed but utterly detached, scientific paper-style account of being injected with truth serum in the first novel, so, here, there is a similarly super-detached account of being caught in an explosion.

Reaction time covers three phases: time required to sense the signal, to decide on the correct response, and to respond. Relevant factors: age, state of health, muscle-tone, fatigue, alcohol, caffeine, so forth. Greatest artificial influential factor: training (i.e. habit formation). (p.151)

Old tech

The entire plot turns out to be about this piece of cutting edge technology, known as a ‘laser’.

The project concerned a refinement of the Laser device (Light Amplification by Stimulate Emission of Radiation). This is an electro-magnetic oscillator producing light-waves massed into an ultra-narrow wave-length band and directed along a fixed path in a ray one million times brighter than is possible in any normal way. (p.121)

Trainspotting

The tough-minded and often angry first-person narrator is as humourlessly factual about his gadgets as about every single other aspect of his world.

They let me take my pick from what they had on the shelves and I came up with a compromise: a Pentax X-15 25 mm single reflex with a 135 mm lens that took a 2 Auto teleconverter and a stock adapter for my Jupiters. This 135 x 2 x 8 (lens plus converter plus field-glasses) gave a total focal length of 2160 mm and a magnification of X 16. (p.62)

Don’t worry, there’s plenty more.

All the Husqvarnas are beautiful but the finest they make is the 561. It is a .358 Magnum, centre-fire, with a three-shot magazine, 25½-inch barrel, hand-chequered walnut stock, corrugated butt-plate and sling swivels. The fore-end and pistol-grip are tipped with rosewood. The total weight is 7¾lbs and the beech-pressure is in the region of 20 tons p.s.i., giving a high muzzle-velocity and an almost flat trajectory with a 150-grain bullet. (p.72)

I think what I don’t like about the books (apart from the ludicrous plots which consist of lots of wandering round being tagged or ‘flushing’ your tags or tagging other people) is that the tone is so relentlessly lecturing, haranguing and expounding. If it’s not guns and cameras, it’s long humourless lectures about the forebrain and the unconscious, the stomach-mind versus the head-brain. How an agent should behave before, during and after an ‘overkill’ operation. What you should know about safe houses.

A safe-house is no ordinary place: it is a cornerstone of security and bad security can wreck a mission and kill you off. You’ve got Local Control if you’re lucky but you can’t always rely on getting there if the operation hots up and you’re jumping. A safe-house is a home and sometimes it’s the only place you can run to. We think of it as a shrine, sacrosanct. It’s really a bolt-hole. (p.117)

It is always left to the discretion of the intelligence director in the field whether a killing is reported or not. (p.148)

Got that at the back? There’ll be a test on Friday.

Sex

It’s a spy novel in the 1960s, so of course there’s a dolly bird (sorry, an operative working for Mil. 6 – note the cool way he doesn’t write MI6, no, Mil.6 is what real insiders call it). Turns out she’s been tasked with ‘tagging’ Quiller all along. She is unnerved by the execution which happens in the book and so they drive to a hotel room and mechanically undress with no words.

We had nothing to say to each other; it was now too urgent for that. In the glow from the bedside lamp she moved without awkwardness, revealing her lean body with feline arrogance until she was naked except for the wafer-flat ·22 that was holstered on the inside of her thigh. She unclipped it deftly and dropped it on to her clothes. (p.127)

Ambler, Innes and MacLean wisely have little or no sex in their novels. Len Deighton’s hero refers to it in an oblique and characteristically dry way. Hall’s touch is brutal and humourless and clumsy.

She cried out the first time, and afterwards the heat of her tears touched my hand. (p.128)

The first time, eh? Give her multiples, did you, Mr Big? The next morning she apologises for crying out her boyfriend’s name ‘in the moment of passion’. This made me smile, because it is such a cliché.

But I laughed out loud when she goes on to explain why: ‘At those times we… often say things. It was because you were so… magnificent. I forgot where I was, who you were.’ (p.130) So magnificent, eh? So magnificient he makes a girl forget who she is, where she is. Modest chap, this Quiller. In his mind, the only agent who can save the Royal, an expert at psychological control, a master of all known weapons, a demon between the sheets. —Presumably, this is all meant to be serious? It isn’t all a colossal satire?

Somewhat inevitably, it turns out her man was killed on their last assignment together and, well, she just had to get it out of her system… You know how women are.

Their moment of release past, the agents both dress and get on with the job of going off to ‘tag’ the bad guys, while trying to avoid getting too ‘tagged’ in return.

Oh and more lecturing.

The sole advantage of the spring-gun is silence. It is more silent than any powder-gun, however heavily baffled. At even medium range – six feet and over – it is inefficient it it has to fire through clothing. Even at four feet an overcoat will shield the body from most of the impact. The spring-gun can kill through light clothing at any range below two feet providing it can be aimed to strike at a vital organ without hitting bone. As a useful weapon it has value only if its limitations are known and allowed for. (p.137)

The stupid plan

This continual lecturing, the complete absence of humour, the tedious expounding of Spy Basics, might all be bearable if the plot had pace or intelligence. But the first half of the book describes how Quiller is brought to Bangkok by a controller who tells him the mission is to protect a visiting Royal from a well-known Asian assassin named Kuo. Quiller tags Kuo all over Bangkok until, abruptly, he disappears – then spends over ten days driving round town trying to find him again. He figures out it will be a hit with a long-range rifle and finds the location, a tower in a Buddhist temple close to the route of the Royal car procession.

BUT, despite knowing the identity of the assassin and the location, Quiller and his Control agree a ludicrous plan which is to wait till the last possible moment, until the Royal car is coming down the parade and into view, and until the assassin is lifting his rifle to take aim, and only then giving Quiller a few seconds to shoot the assassin – from the window of a room Quiller has found in a derelict building across the way.

This seems like a bad plan. I explained it to my son and he said, how stupid. Really – you’re not going to tell MI6 (sorry, Mil.6), the local police or military or intelligence – you are going to make saving the life of a senior Royal entirely dependent on your own shooting ability and leave it to the last possible moment? Not have him arrested? Not bump him off earlier in the day? Leave everything to the last possible moment?

The absurdity of this approach closely echoes the absurdity of The Quiller Memorandum wherein Quiller lets himself be picked up twice by the Nazi gang and then lets himself be ‘tagged’ all round town before managing to slip away to make a phone call to his local Control. That’s the plot. How Quiller slips his tail to make one phone call to the office.

I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when the ‘plan’ goes horribly wrong. Who would have predicted that? Despite having cocked things up really badly, the narrator doesn’t leave off his barrage of hectoring, except it is now like trying to keep a straight face in front of a teacher who has hilariously screwed up in front of the whole class. Now you can’t take anything he says seriously, and the more deadly earnest and man-of-the-world he tries to be, the more ludicrous a figure he cuts.

There had been only a slight phuttt from the gun. Its barrel had swung up a degree to meet my hand and the dart had ripped flesh away. A trained athlete reacts as fast as a cat, and muscle-obedience to the motor nerves is almost instantaneous. (p.138)

Ah so.

He held a ·38 automatic and it had a silencer. ‘Silencer’ is a misnomer. No gun can be made silent. A full baffle will absorb a lot of noise but it will also cost a lot of impact and can make the difference between a kill and a maiming wound – and a man with a maiming wound can run and can even fight and can even close in before the second shot comes. This was a half-baffle designed to cut down the noise without costing too much fire-power. (p.140)

In many places this ‘novel’ approaches as close to a textbook or manual as a work of fiction can. And all the people in it are faultless professionals who have all been to the same finishing schools for spies and secret agents.

His hand moved fractionally into the killing-attitude, pressing the gun against his side to cushion the recoil. (p.142)

The Chinese hadn’t moved. Blood came from the hole in his neck. She had shot for the third vertebra in the cervical region, smashing it and severing the nerves. It was a surgically accurate shot, consideration having been taken of the limitations of so small a gun. (p.146)

They were working as a perfectly disciplined cell controlled by a professional of talent. (p.166)

So it’s odd, eerie, then, that the overwhelming impression the narrator makes is of an idiot, permanently angry, always shouting at his calm boss, arrogantly declaring he has the only plan to protect the visiting Royal – a plan which completely misfires allowing the Royal to be kidnapped by the gang – an idiot, and who then deliberately lets himself be cornered in a warehouse, hand grenaded, poisoned by cyanide and then has his car shot away from under him.

There are countless pages of manual-speak but next to no intelligence. Instead the crucial breakthroughs in the plot are complete accidents – he happens to see Kuo going into the temple which will be used for the hit; and he happens to glimpse out the corner of his eye a Rolls Royce with the Union Jack being flown incorrectly on it and so suspects it is being used to smuggle the Royal out of Bangkok.

The narrator goes to great lengths to show off his expertise, but comes across as a technocrat buffoon. On page 174 he accuses himself of gross stupidity and it is hard to disagree.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

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.

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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