Quiller

Adam Hall

By Otto Penzler

Mystery, detective, and espionage stories have changed a good deal since their initial popularity. The day of the eccentric genius, quietly solving puzzles from his armchair, has passed. No longer can Hercule Poirot point to his "little grey cells" as the ultimate crime-solving device. The technocrat, the faceless operative employed by a great corporation, institution, or government, is the new hero of mystery novels. The villain is no longer a simple murderer or thief but often another faceless operative, or his employer.
     The quintessential corporate operator, the best-known and most professional of them all, is Quiller. In Quiller's world events unfold with a chilling efficiency, as colorless as a corpse and as inexorable as death.
     Adam Hall is a pseudonym of Elleston Trevor, a prolific writer of novels, adventure tales, and espionage stories. The best known of his many books is The Quiller Memorandum, which introduced his distinguished agent. It won the coveted Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America, the French Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and was made into a memorable motion picture starring George Segal. The Quiller character served as the basis for a British television series in 1975.
     Trevor, a former RAF pilot, began writing after his World War II service. The English-born author was described by Time magazine as "the most successful literary double agent now in the business." The 57-year-old novelist and screenwriter lives in Fountain Hills, Arizona, with his wife, Jonquil Trevor.


Quiller

By Adam Hall

IN LONDON, there is a Bureau, notable mainly for its lack of features. It doesn't exist, officially, because it is empowered to do things that couldn't be countenanced by any other government department. Nobody among the shadow executives of the Bureau has ever heard of the man who runs it; he is nameless. It is known only that he is directly responsible to the prime minister. No mission is ever set up by the Bureau at lower than prime minister level; if other departments like Scotland Yard, Special Branch, or M.I.5 could handle the operation, it wouldn't be sent to the Bureau.
     There have to be names for people at the Bureau so that they can be identified, but nobody on the staff has anything but a code name. Their real names are known only to the hierarchy (whoever the hierarchy may be) and their personal dossiers are held in files with autodestruct mechanisms, so that any attempt at unauthorized opening will result in the automatic obliteration of the material inside.
     The work of the Bureau is not espionage, nor is it counterespionage, otherwise it would be done by D.I.6 and M.I.5, respectively. Sometimes a mission will overlap the work of these and other branches, but when it does it is because they've elected not to do it or because the operation is too sensitive, or too specialized, or too hazardous. In a less physical sense, the executives of the Bureau can be likened to the commandos of an army at war: dedicated men, self-committed to tasks that are more exacting than normal. There is no political aspect to a mission. An executive normally has a single simple job to do and he does it without consideration of the consequences.
     One of these executives is Quiller. That, of course, is his code name; his real name is unknown.
     About his past there are various rumors: that he was someone in the professional category of lawyer or doctor, denied his license; that he once served a prison term, undeservedly (hence his bitterness, which is never far below the skin); that he is a man on the run who has found a perfect cover in the Bureau.
     In his forties, he is as fit as an alley cat and his whole makeup is tense, edgy and bitten-eared. Without the imagination to see that life is wide open to any man's need for self-expression, Quiller seems to have to synthesize drama for himself, to invite danger and privation and bitter challenge so that his life can have significance. He needs to live close to the crunch. Like bullfighters and racing drivers, he is a professional neurotic, half in love with death.
     Obviously antisocial, shy of people and human contact, he is wary of giving anything of himself to others. But, on rare occasions when the pressures of a mission have forced him into a position where he must consider other people — sometimes a deadly opponent — he reveals compassion, surprising himself.
     His last will and testament is revealing: "Nothing of value, no dependents, next of kin unknown." This nihilistic aspect of his character, his isolationism, suits perfectly the atmosphere of the Bureau, where anonymity and facelessness are virtues. If all the requirements of the Bureau were put through a computer to synthesize the ideal executive, they would result in Quiller.
     Fiercely professional, he is contemptuous of the amateur and of people who refuse to take things to the limit before they give up. This critical attitude extends to the Bureau itself. Like many a competent ship's officer with ambition and talent, he thinks he could run things better than the skipper. As a mission heats up, he begins to curse "London" for what they're doing to him. Still, he respects the Bureau and its hierarchy. In talking of the executive-Bureau relationship, he says, "Sometimes I suppose we'd get the hell out of this trade if it wasn't for the bruised, lopsided sense of loyalty to the Bureau that's always there in front of us like a scarecrow wherever we go." At other times, other thoughts come to his mind: "Those bloody people in London won't ever give you a break. They'd grind a blind dog into the ground; they'll drive you till you drop and then step on your face."
     Quiller has completed thirty-five missions — a tribute to his professionalism in a trade where life is cheap. He doesn't drink because it would affect his reaction time, and for the same reason he doesn't smoke. He refuses to carry a gun. Ever. He puts his reasons this way: "If a man has to carry a gun it means he's got no better resources. A gun can be more dangerous to you than to the other man, if you carry one. It gives you a false feeling of power, superiority, and you get the fatal idea that, with this thing in your hand, you don't have to make any effort because the conflict's already been won. And for Christ's sake watch it if you find you've left the safety catch on or forgot to load or there's a dud in the clip or the other man gets time to kick the thing out of your hand — then you've really had it. Better to use your brain because your brain won't stop working for you till you're dead. Guns are for amateurs, and anyway . . . I don't like the bang they make."
     Quiller is often introspective, and likely to conclude that "In this trade you grow a protective shell, the years of deceits and betrayals adding to it layer by layer till the day comes when you feel trapped and want to break out and it's too late, because you know it's yourself you've been betraying and deceiving over all those years. The shell is a part of you, it grows from the inside outwards, like your fingernails.
     Also, "You don't do what you do for the sake of your country or world peace, though you kid yourself. You do it to scratch an itch. I'm not talking about the people who do it for the money —they're just whores. Most of us do it because we don't get a big enough kick out of pushing a pen or punching the clock or washing the car on Sundays. We want to get outside of all that and live on our own so we can work off our scabby neuroses without getting arrested for it. We want to scratch the itch till it bleeds."
     Quiller and four other executives at the Bureau have the suffix 9 to their code names. It means they've proved themselves reliable under torture. It's not an award of any kind, but an indication to directors that a man with the 9 suffix is suitable for sending into an area (behind the Iron Curtain, for example) where "implemented interrogation" will be made if he is captured. Quiller's reaction to this ability to stand torture is straightforward. "Within a couple of hours," he says, "an efficient interrogator and his team can turn any man into a raving animal if they use the full technique. But they can't; there's a breakoff point because the whole idea is that they want information out of you and they know they won't get it if they've gone too far and wrecked the psyche. What you've got to do is try not to talk this side of consciousness, because once you've flaked out you're safe till they start again. And if you can do it once, you can do it a dozen times."
     Quiller is at home with wild animals. He feels a brother to them and knows their ways, their fears. What he calls "mission feel"— the sixth sense of the working executive — is closely related to the instincts of the animal. "Mission feel is never wrong," he says. "It's the instinct we develop as we go forward into the dark like an old fox sniffing the wind and catching the scent of things it has smelled before and learned to distrust. The forefoot is sensitive, poised and held still above the patch of unknown ground where the next flicker of a nerve can spring a trap."
     His attitude toward women stems from his fear of people, his need to feel cut off and isolated. He chooses women who are themselves solitary, reserved, each in her own way a lone wolverine with some hurt to heal, a past to forget, or a lie to live. Some of them are seeking their own identity, as Quiller himself may be, and he finds himself attracted to them as reflections of his own enigma. They are lean and have quietness, are watchful, talking little, turning their heads slowly to appraise a newcomer, withdrawing with the speed of a spring if their approach is too immediate.
     Quiller is versed in psychology, sleep dynamics, the nervous system and its behavior under stress. His fast-driving technique is based squarely on a knowledge of what happens to a car when it's pushed to the limit. He is aware of the target-finding values of positive and negative feedback as he makes his way through a mission. He is good enough at code-breaking sometimes to intercept a signal from an opposition cell without having to ask London.
     Knowing Quiller to be difficult, obstinate, obdurate, and perverse, the directors at the Bureau handle him in the most appropriate way. They seldom offer him a mission outright, because it would give him the chance of refusing it out of sheer bloody-mindedness. They lead him into it with a carrot, working up his interest indirectly. "I understand," they'll say, for example, "they've landed Smythe with a real stinker, and frankly I don't think he can handle it." Or they'll just tell him this one "isn't for him" without saying why, so that he feels deprived of an important mission.
     "Of course, this kind of job isn't really in your field."
     "Why not?"
     "It's not much of a mission. Everyone else has refused it."
     "Oh, have they?"
     Quiller understands this technique. "They know," he says, "they've got to look for the man who stands facing the wrong way in a bus queue to show he doesn't really want a bus, the man who always wants the window open when everyone else wants it shut, the awkward fellow who's going to kill himself one day trying to prove he's bullet-proof. And if they want him for a dirty, rotten, stinking job that he'd normally throw back in their faces, all they've got to do is tell him that everyone else has refused it."
     An executive can refuse to accept a mission for any one of a dozen reasons: it doesn't seem to fit his particular talents, it means working in extreme heat (Africa, say) and he prefers extreme cold (or vice versa), he doesn't get along well with this particular director or director in the field, he's too well known behind the Iron Curtain, and so forth. But if he accepts a mission, he's totally committed, even to the point of using a cyanide capsule.
     The executive is told as little as possible about the background to a mission. He needs to go in with a clear head, uncluttered by minor details or major (often political) considerations.
     Quiller is aware of this. "You can always refuse a mission," he says, "it's in the contract. But you can't ever judge the odds against coming out alive and you can't even tell whether you're due for a rough ride or a great big routine yawn because they won't give you any information. We accept that. We know we'd be scared stiff by the size and scope of a big operation if we could see the overall picture, and all we want is our own little box of matches to play with in the corner while the boys at the top work out how to stop the whole house from going up if we make a mistake.
     Most missions require a cover for the executive, with a cover name. During his clearance, therefore, from the Bureau, he is given his cover name when he departs on an operation. Quiller seldom carries out a mission under his code name; he becomes Mr. Gage, or Mr. Longstreet, and so on. The cover name is even used in signals from Control (the London office) to Local Control (the operational base in the field) unless absolute secrecy can be relied on. Thus, any shadow executive working on a mission is already two removes from his true identity. Although this is mere formal security, he is bound to feel nameless, rootless, and his identity tends to become associated with the mission in hand rather than with his past as a person. This is reflected in most executives' attitude toward the Bureau. Despite the grandiose title of "shadow executives" (probably coined by the hierarchy at the time when rat catchers became "rodent operatives") these men know what they really are. As Quiller puts it: "We're ferrets, to be put down a hole."
     Quiller prefers working alone, on solo missions, accepting a director in the field where necessary but never working alongside other executives.
     Once he has left his base and begins work in the field, he is usually at risk. If he is captured and interrogated, or if he is exposed to the opposition's view (perhaps holed up in a building or on a ship and unable to leave), or if there is the slightest risk of his giving away his base and his director in the field, he will cut himself loose and take the consequences — just as any other executive would. If he is slow to do this, the director will do it for him.
     Quiller once had to brief a recruited agent: "You've got to learn to cross the line and live your life outside society, shut yourself away from people, cut yourself off. Values are different out there. Let a man show friendship for you and you've got to deny him, mistrust him, suspect him, and nine times out of ten you'll be wrong but it's the tenth time that'll save you from a dirty death in a cheap hotel because you'd opened the door to a man you thought was a friend. Out there you'll be alone and you'll have no one you can trust, not even the people who are running you. Not even me. If you make the wrong kind of mistake at the wrong time in the wrong place, and it looks like you're fouling up the mission or exposing the Bureau, they'll throw you to the dogs. And so will I."
     This situation is accepted by the executives. So is the fact that they are expendable if the crunch comes or a wheel falls off. The executive is cut loose the instant he presents a risk to the network, to the Bureau. The working phrase is: "The mission is more important than the man."


  The Great Detectives



 
 
Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2001

This entry was taken from Otto Penzler's The Great Detectives, 1978.