The Most Dour Spy of Them All: The Quiller Caper

By Richard Schickel

Elleston Trevor is the most successful literary double agent now in the business. Writing in the clear under his own name, he turned out non-spy thrillers such as The Flight of the Phoenix, a best seller that made a suspenseful movie. Under the pseudonym of Adam Hall, he created Quiller, the monomial secret-agent hero of The Quiller Memorandum, which won the 1965 Edgar as the mystery-suspense novel of the year and started what is taking on the aspect of a Quiller festival. A glossy movie of Memorandum is now in the theaters, and a second Quiller novel, The Ninth Directive, has just been issued in a manner suggesting his publishers, Simon & Schuster, expect Trevor to take his place in the Fleming-Le Carré-Deighton pantheon.
     Toward that end, both the filmmakers and Hall seem to be trying to give more appeal to Quiller, who, besides having no first name, has no history, no life away from his lonely, difficult job—and a bare minimum of social graces. In a way this is too bad, for in Memorandum he had a certain originality as a fantasy figure. Basically he is the familiar good-bad guy, a fellow who has been a cowboy, private eye and freebooter in other rugged climes. But Hall has pushed this type well beyond the usual limits. John Le Carré's spies are softened by a spirit of existential suffering; Fleming, who viewed Bond as having no more sensibility than a cocked revolver, distracted us from his coldness by emphasizing his Lucullan tastes, his sexual prowess, his skill at cards. Quiller is nothing but a counterspy and gunsel—and not very nice.
     He is such a pathologically distrustful type that he habitually refuses the aid his supersceret organization always tries to press on him when he is operating in a "red sector," or maximum-danger situation. He is, naturally, adept at all the arts of violence and self-defense. He is a student of psychology and physiology, interests which help him survive. His name bears a "9" suffix in his employers' files, meaning he is reliable under torture and can counter pain or drugs through his own discipline.
     To make this brute palatable, Hall uses ferociously inventive plotting and a breakneck pace that allows little time for reflection on Quiller's unlovely nature. It is only in the aftertaste of one of his adventures that we realize we have been tricked into swallowing an embittered pill as a hero.
     If he lacks human reality, he nevertheless is an effective symbol of the institutionalized violence of our times. But this symbolic effectiveness is somewhat diluted both in his screen incarnation and in his second novelistic exposure. Both are perfectly acceptable entertainments, even a bit above par. But neither of them has quite the weight that Memorandum had as a novel.
     The film based on The Quiller Memorandum is faithful to the book's action. The lone agent, pitted against some very nasty neo-Nazis in Berlin, undergoes harrowing harassment before bringing them to book, proving, in one powerful scene, his inalienable right to the "9" suffix. But George Segal's Quiller, although a likable performance in a smart-alecky vein, lacks the hard center that should be at the spy's core. Segal is a young and bouncy actor, unable to convey a lifetime of ill use or the dankness of spirit such experience produces. Since Alec Guinness, as Quiller's control, is awfully self-conscious, and since Max von Sydow, as his chief nemesis, is perhaps a bit too broadly grotesque for the realistic mood of everyone else, it is only the ability of Director Michael Anderson to create a menacing atmosphere by purely cinematic means and then puncture it with sharply orchestrated action that lifts the film to the pleasant height it attains.

Problems like those of the film plague Hall in the second novel. His best material—Quiller's weird personality—is obscured, this time by an overwrought plot. The setting is Bangkok. Quiller is to prevent the assassination or abduction of a Very Important Englishman (Prince Philip?) on a goodwill visit. Embroidering this daring central ploy with a plethora of details, Hall stretches and stretches the string of the story.
     The reader can suspend disbelief almost to the end, when Hall comes up with a resolution that is less than convincing. Worse, while fussing to save the story, Hall lets Quiller fade to a shadow of the person he was at the outset. Such disappearing acts are always disconcerting, but they are especially so when the writer has a gift for a genre that still has too few practitioners of his caliber.

  The January 27, 1967 issue of LIFE

Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2001

"The Most Dour Spy of Them All: The Quiller Caper" was originally published in the January 27, 1967 issue of LIFE [Volume 62, Number 4].