The Man Who Was Quiller

By George Tolstiakov

The Man Who Was QuillerWhen on July 31, 1995, an Indian casket containing the ashes of Elleston Trevor was buried on a mountain in Northern Arizona, fans around the world also mourned the death of one of the most loved fictional secret agents of all time—Quiller.

     Three days before his death of cancer, at the age of 75, Elleston Trevor, the prolific British novelist, also known as Adam Hall, had finished his last book in the Quiller series—Quiller Balalaika. Set in Russia, this was also the last book I helped him research.
     I became acquainted with Elleston in 1991, when I came to the U.S. I wanted to interview him for the Top Secret Monthly, a bulletin published by the Moscow Headquarters of the International Association of Crime Writers, where I was working at the time. Trevor/Hall was very popular in Russia, favored more than le Carré. After obtaining his New York agent’s address, I wrote a letter and prepared myself for a long wait. To my amazement, Trevor himself called me in no time, and we agreed on the time and day of the interview.
     That was typical of Elleston Trevor: he was easygoing, democratic, and very generous. That first time we met, we spent several hours talking and became friends almost immediately. In the course of this and many other conversations with him, I learned of the influences and events that shaped his life as a writer and a person.
     Elleston Trevor was a born writer. He would recall that there was no real time in his life when he was not writing or wanting to. When he was five years old, his sister, who was a little older than he, had just started to learn French. "I had never heard of French before," Trevor remembered. "I asked my sister, ‘What’s the French for a "magic garden.’" She said, ‘Le jardin majic.’ I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound at all that different. I am going to write a novel in French,’ I must have been so completely mind-boggled by the idea of a different language, that I wanted to write a novel in it straight away."
     Trevor’s longing for adventure revealed itself early, when, after dropping out of high school, he was apprenticed to tune racing cars. The Second World War intervened in this career. He dreamed of being a pilot ("because any young man of 19 with a sports car wanted to fly a Spitfire"), but because of vision problems, he could not have gone into dog-fights. He served in the Royal Air Force as a flight engineer on Spitfires.
     He started writing short stories when he was 19, and by the time he was 21-22, he was writing short novels in his spare time (one every two weeks), "just churning them out," according to his own words. "During the War I had a publisher who happened to have a nice load of paper around," Trevor recollected. "There was a paper shortage, but he happened to have a lot in his warehouse; so he was able to publish new writers, whereas other publishers weren’t . Soon I began earning more than I was earning as a serviceman, which, of course wasn’t difficult."
     After leaving the service, in 1947, Trevor became a professional writer, writing everything from novels for children to plays for the BBC. In about five years, he enjoyed his first success: his novel Chorus of Echoes received excellent reviews and was made into a film. He continued his successful writing career up until his death.
     Probably Elleston Trevor’s most famous book was The Quiller Memorandum (published as The Berlin Memorandum in the U.K.). This Edgar Award-winning novel introduced Quiller, a tough, intractable British "shadow executive" whose quick reflexes and stamina allowed him to endure almost any amount of torture. The book received rave reviews from the connoisseurs as Anthony Boucher ("1965’s leading spy novel to date…I’ll put my money on Quiller"), John Dickson Carr ("…one of the best spy novels I have ever read") and Sir Charles Snow who called Trevor "an accomplished entertainer."
     This is how Trevor himself described to me the birth of Quiller: "In 1963 I’d written a book called The Volcanoes of San Domingo. I did not like this book, so I told my London publisher I did not want to send it to him. I sent it to a different publisher under the pseudonym of Jack Tango (it was sort of for a giggle). I did not respect this book, but my first publisher said, ‘Hey, let me have a book anyway, we’re under a contract.’ I said, ‘All right, you’ll get it.’ And the book I wrote for him instead of this bad one was The Flight of the Phoenix. That made him happy. Meanwhile, I got a letter from another publisher who wrote, ‘Dear Mr. Tango, who are you really? We loved your book and we’d love to publish it.’ So I did a two-book contract with them. I had a second book to write for them and did not know what to write. At about that time John le Carré brought out The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and that was making an impression. I did not read it, but I read the reviews, and I thought, ‘Here’s a man who is really doing a different kind of job for spies. Let’s write a real spy novel, not James Bond, but the real thing. So I thought up The Quiller Memorandum. And I had to do it under a pseudonym, because I was with that other publisher."
The Man Who Was Quiller     The name for the secret agent was chosen in honor of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an English author; Trevor told me he always thought of the letter "Q" as unusual, and he just could not see calling Quiller Bob or Harry; it would not suit a man who was "a bit of an alley cat of a character." "I thought of giving him one name and calling it a code name," Trevor said. "And I thought it would add to the mystery, because what was his real name? Well, nobody has found out."
     In his tribute to his father, Elleston Trevor’s son, Jean-Pierre, wrote: "I partly fight Quiller because it reminds me of the shield my father’s had to keep in place all his life. Maybe if Quiller was vulnerable he wouldn’t exist." Quiller, indeed, shares a lot of Trevor’s opinions, for example, the hatred for his school days. "The British preparatory school and, in particular, the British public schools were awful places," Trevor once told me. "You got beaten for the slightest faults…the terror of it, having to line up outside the door and hearing the cane swishing inside. I went through a lot at that school—every public schoolboy did—and that left a mark on my soul." In Quiller Barracuda, Quiller is trying to debrief a young man, who has just come back from his first mission and is almost suicidal:

     He was sitting on his hands now, rocking on them, as if he’d just been bashed over the knuckles with a ruler, oh those school days, oh those bloody school days, they last you all your life…

     As peaceful a man as he was, Trevor always said that a lot of Quiller’s aggression and angst were something out of his own unconscious. Explaining the nature of his hero, Trevor said: "Quiller is afraid of being a coward, afraid of not facing a challenge and so he faces it, he makes these challenges. He wants to improve himself. Mountaineers do that; they dare themselves to get to the top of Everest. And Quiller pushes himself all the time. Being on the brink is his spiritual home. He has this lust for risking things, something that feeds his pride and his vanity when he gets away with it and gets home unscathed. He often belittles his sense of vanity in these books."
     Over the course of time Quiller, undergoes change. From a "thinking machine" and a "nerveless operative" in the early books, as some critics labeled him, "Q" gradually becomes more compassionate, while still preserving his "gut-think" and quick reflexes. "Q does have compassion," Trevor would say, "and occasionally he lets it through, especially towards women. (I get a lot of fan mail from women; I happen to be a feminist.) Quiller is not an unkind man; in fact, he is quite courteous to his deadliest enemies, when he can be, when he can afford to be. So he is not just in it for the blood and guts."
     Elleston Trevor’s imagination was truly inexhaustible. Upon his death, he left behind about twenty bulging envelopes filled with plots and ideas. Though he always thoroughly researched his books, he also tried not to write about anywhere he’d been. He thought a detailed knowledge of certain places limited his imagination. "This sounds very perverse," he would say, "but it is somehow that the country or area has a magic, a mystery for me that maybe came through in my writing, which doesn’t always happen if I’ve actually been there. I hadn’t been to Germany when I wrote The Quiller Memorandum. I hadn’t been to Hong Kong when I wrote The Mandarin Cypher. But I wrote to the Hong Kong police to ask for a traffic ticket, because in this book Quiller has been parking illegally, and he has a traffic ticket on the windshield, and I wanted the exact and precise wording. As I grew up and travelled more, there became fewer and fewer places where I hadn’t been, so I had to set Quiller in places I’d already visited. The first time I did it was when I lived in France; I set a new Quiller novel in the south of France and after a third of the way through I knew it wasn’t working. I had to pack it in and start fresh somewhere else, because I knew the territory too well."
     Trevor himself called his method of getting ideas for his books a "clustering"—"one idea begets another and you get a cluster of ideas forming." "The imagination of every writer," he used to repeat, "is fed every day by the people he talks to, and the books he reads, and the screens he watches, and it all goes in as data. Then you put your own construction onto it and it becomes, hopefully, unique. I get this question a lot—where do I get my ideas from? It’s like saying where do I get the air I breathe? —it’s all around me."
     That’s how, for instance, an idea for a Quiller novel, The Sinkiang Executive, which takes place on the Russo-Chinese border, came to Trevor in the Arizona wilderness, literally out of thin air. "I was standing in the desert one day," he recalled, "and a U.S. military jet was on exercises. It flew above where I was standing, very low and very fast. I did not see him coming, because his sound wave was behind him. And there I was in the middle of the desert, enjoying the birds’ songs and ‘Phew!’—this thing went over my head. And as it disappeared, like a needle, so fast, I thought: I must put Quiller in one of those. So I went down to Luke Air Force Base, here in Phoenix, and the commanding officer kindly lent me two pilots and put me in a briefing room. I came out punch-drunk, knowing enough to put Quiller in a plane; it was a MIG he was flying."
The Man Who Was Quiller     Another example happened when Trevor was between books and did not know what to write about. "I came out of a building in Phoenix, looked up at one of the skyscrapers and saw two dots on it. Those dots were window-cleaners. I thought, ‘That must be an interesting job.’ So I waited an hour in the car till they came down on their cradle. And I said, ‘Can I take you boys for a drink?’ And I did. When they had sunk their third or fourth whiskey, I noticed that their hands had stopped shaking. I said, ‘Oh, it can get to you up at those heights.’ And they said, ‘You bet.’ And they went into their story about window-cleaners. So I ended up with a book called Penthouse with a psychopathic killer and Jackie Onassis on the 50th floor of a New York skyscraper; the police were trying to get her free from him, before he kills her. For the same book the chief of police in Phoenix assigned me one of his officers who was a hostage negotiator. He was with me for about three, four days while we were going around to these dramatic scenes. So the research was totally authentic."
     In his own words, Trevor always "played the headlines to win." That happened with the Neo-Nazism in the 1960s, when the memories of Hitler’s crimes were still fresh, and with Russia in the 1990s, when the disintegrated Soviet Union started posing a new theme for many thriller writers. The changing of the political guards did not in the least frighten Trevor, who kept pushing Quiller into new territories. "Man is a warring animal," he told me once. "And if he is going on warring (and I’m damn sure he is), we’ve got to have spies. I think the future of the spy novel unhappily is going to be the same as the past: we are going to go on having to spy."
     In private life though, Trevor hated wars and was baffled by any kind of patriotism and chauvinism. He considered himself a citizen of the Earth and would dream of the time when people could live together in brotherhood, pulling together to fight disease and hunger. "The planet Earth is a teeny-weeny point of light we’re all living on," he would say. "We’ve got to get these frontiers down, and burn all the flags and become earthlings. Let’s keep out ethnic groups and go around in our national costume, but don’t go to war about it." This antipathy to war animates his personal favorite of his own books, Bury Him Among Kings, which was centered around the First World War.
     Once I asked him what were the most important events that had a lasting effect on his life. Changing countries, Trevor said, and, probably, studying karate (he’d received a black belt in Shotokan karate under Sensei Shojiro Koyama in 1984). In 1958, after having spent some time in Spain, Trevor moved with his family to France, and settled in a 14th-century village only 16 kilometers from Cannes. The main reasons for that, he explained, were the good restaurants and the French way of life. I suspect, though, that it had more to do with the hardships of his childhood, out of whose contours the Quiller character was born.
     In 1972 Trevor moved to the United States. He reached this decision after coming to the U.S.A. for three months to supervise the building of the plane for The Flight of the Phoenix, the movie based on one of his novels. "I find the Americans much more open-minded and open-hearted than the English and the French who were so terribly conservative," Trevor once told me. "You don’t talk to anybody until you’ve been introduced and all that nonsense. I tell the Americans I like a country where they wear their hearts on their sleeves; they want to communicate, they want to know what I’m thinking. It’s a country of a great many faults: the crime situation is quite atrocious, and television and so on. But despite that I am far happier here than I was in Europe."
     Trevor settled down in Arizona, in the deep desert. "Here we have black widows," he would tell me proudly, "we have scorpions in our shoes, and rattlesnakes running around. It’s very lovely, and I like working here." The desert, an eternally silent wasteland on first glance, in reality contains much mysterious life. It became a perfect hideaway for the novelist, allowing him to dedicate his whole life to writing.
     In recent years Trevor did not travel much—he was too busy writing. "You see, old boy," he once told me, "I am working harder than I ever used to, because the challenge is greater, the track is faster, there are more writers around, the competition is greater. I find it very stimulating." Being a workaholic, Trevor hated the idea of spending two weeks on the beach ("I’d go crazy," he admitted). The only distraction he would allow was caring for the nine horses he and his second wife, Chaille, owned. Chaille, a painter and a trainer of Arabian horses, was a close friend of the Trevors, and became Elleston’s wife after his first wife, Jonquil, died of brain cancer in 1986. Every now and then the Trevors would go to New York or the American Booksellers Association meetings where Elleston would meet with his American and foreign literary agents and publishers.
     Elleston’s writing methods had been developing over the years. "I’ve always written with a typewriter," he explained. "The mechanical action of the fingers supplied by the left brain releases the right hemisphere. People get ideas when they are washing the dishes or cleaning the car, the ideas they would not get if they were just sitting at the desk looking in the middle distance trying to think up things. If you can get quiet the left hemisphere of you brain, give it some task to do, like mowing the lawn, the right hemisphere is then free to dream. A lot of my work is done first thing in the morning when I’m shaving. Since I use a blade, my left hemisphere has got to be pretty bright about it, and it is thoroughly engaged in this, trying not to draw blood. So my right hemisphere is released to dream and to plot, so, of course, I have my tape recorder in the bathroom the whole time. And I keep on hitting that with ideas as they come. By the time I get to my desk, which may not be until noon, because in the morning I have to run and I have a lot of people to call, most of my work is done. All I have to do is to transpose it from the recorder into what I call my plot book and then start writing."
The Man Who Was Quiller     Trevor’s versatility as a writer sprang both from his imagination and from his avid reading. "All writers have to read," he repeated. "I read like mad when I was beginning to write. Now I read when I can afford time for it." Among his favorite mystery writers were Elmore Leonard and Martin Cruz Smith. "But," he admitted, "most of my favorite writers are still English. Not because they are English, but because they come across more neurotic for me. Take The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell. I think it’s a wonderful study in neurosis. They always keep the stiff upper lip, which makes it even more intriguing, more mysterious. That’s why I think all the best spy novelists come from England—because of the fog, and the frequent frontiers, the underhandedness, and the secrecy. In America, whether they succeed or not, they try to do everything aboveboard, they want an accounting from the CIA about how much they’ve spent this year. You can’t run a spy agency like that, you can’t respond to the public, it’s got to be secret. And the public has got to trust that [the spy agency] is not to do anything too dirty in their name; it doesn’t always work, of course…"
     In his last years most of Trevor’s reading was in the realm of metaphysics. "Science is very slowly coming to realize that there is life outside a test tube. I love the idea that we are not just people going around the shopping malls and writing books—that there’s a heck more to us than that. And the idea that if you take all the space away from the human body that it would fit very comfortably on the head of a pin—I think it’s a charming way to begin thinking about yourself."
     Not very long before his death, we talked about his plans for future books. "I do need a new line of books, a new direction for myself, and under my own name, Elleston Trevor. I think it’s going to be suspense, because I like tricking and cheating the reader. I want to write more about people rather than international crises." What about Quiller? "I don’t see stopping Quiller, certainly, in the foreseeable future. I like writing Quillers. I’m trying to make changes with Quiller with every single book; I think how he can change, how he should be changing. And as he is getting more compassionate, the subsidiary characters are becoming a little more rounded. I shall be writing Quillers, as far as I can see, for a long time."
     Sadly for us this prediction did not come true. There is no doubt, as least, that we will be reading Quillers and other books by Elleston Trevor for a long time. And that’s the best thing any writer could dream of.

  The Winter 1996 issue of The Armchair Detective

Last modified: Friday, November 29, 2002

"The Man Who Was Quiller" and the accompanying images were originally published in the Winter 1996 issue of The Armchair Detective [Volume 29, Number 1].