By Dan Hagen
He did a double-take when he spotted the lean man in the sunglasses striding across campus. Yes. Must be him. He began stalking his target and, at the right moment, stepped into his path.
"Excuse me," the Arizona State University student said. "Are you Quiller?"
"I write Quiller," Elleston Trevor explained.
"Thought so," said the student, turning on his heel and walking away.
It was Trevor's favorite brush with a fan. No gushing, no autographs, just a flat sentence fragment very much in the style of the terse, tense shadow executive whose exploits Trevor records under the pen name of Adam Hall.
Twelve of those adventures have been published so far, with the contract signed for number thirteen. After all those pages, we know little about this man Quiller—and all we need to know.
We know nothing of his past, although there are rumors that the bitterness springs from the fact that he was drummed out of one of the professions—the law, perhaps, or medicine. We don't know how he washed ashore at the Bureau, a supersecret British intelligence agency with an almost criminal rate of attrition. We don't even know his name.
Quiller is a code name which includes the nine suffix, a valuable but unsought cachet. It means "reliable under torture."
We do know Quiller will go the limit to ensure the success of his mission, whether that means entering an enemy stronghold alone and unarmed or stowing away in the wheel-well of an international jetliner. He isn't fearless, though. In fact, he has two phobias which border on the pathological—the fear of a sniper's bullet (the invisible killer no one anticipates) and of attack dogs ("Can't stand the bloody things," he says simply). But Quiller has learned the psychological trick of objectifying his emotions. With his life in the balance, he contemptuously identifies his fear as "the organism whimpering and cowering" and commands himself to "ignore incoming data."
Much of what we know of him can be expressed in terms of negatives: he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't carry a gun. He owns nothing of value, has no next of kin, no dependents. He has no illusions about his motives for being a spy. He isn't in it for queen and country, but as a means to a private end—his secret vice, that feeling you get when you push yourself to what you think are your limits and then beyond them.
It's a lonely thrill and he's a lonely man, drawn to women whose sorry pasts and present alienation make them shadowy reflections of his own self-image. We know that when he dies he'll have left a single bequest to a mysterious woman he calls Moira—either a truckload of roses or one rose, depending on his mood. She is his only human constant, and it may be significant that he seems to think of her only when he thinks of death. His sole admitted motivations are excitement and the ruthless pride of the professional. He's the classic man of honor in a dishonorable world—and would undoubtedly respond to any such description of himself with a fierce curse.
We know that until just recently, his relationship with his spymasters was ambivalent—bounded on one side by his "bruised, lopsided sense of loyalty" and on the other by his internal ranting about "those bloody people in London." We know he knows they manipulate him, and we know he resents it but puts up with it because London is an avenue to the moral no-man's-land where he can indulge his vice. We know he sees himself as a ferret, teeth and all, with London putting him down the hole.
And we know how he'd size up his most famous colleague on Her Majesty's Secret Service, if they ever met. "In evening dress, with a girl on each arm?" Trevor said, poised over a steamy cup of lapsang soochong. "Quiller would think he's a clown."
You find it odd to sit across from this expatriate Englishman—his accent still crisp, his mercurial intelligence pouncing from sleep dynamics to socialism to psychology—and realize that all of Quiller is only a part of him.
It's difficult to equate the wary, alienated secret agent with the man who nearly collapses in laughter at the dinner table, trading rapid-fire Inspector Clouseau impressions with his son. Or the man who sends an autographed copy of one of his children's books to a young boy with leukemia he's only read about in a newspaper. Or the man who can unselfconsciously use the term "the joy of life," defined as his wife, his son, good friends, the rituals of karate, the meticulous pleasures of model airplane building, the wonder of stargazing.
Yet Quiller is there, just beneath the surface. Dilettantes and plain bloody fools can make him drop his cover.
"Writers come to me at cocktail parties and say, 'Elleston, I must just read you this chapter of mine' and I think, 'Oh my god,'" Trevor says, his voice hitting Quiller's note of bristling professionalism. "They're never important writers, because important writers don't ever do that. They just don't want to talk about it."
Both Quiller and Trevor are "bloody-minded" individuals who take pride in reaching the objective. "The highest compliment is when somebody says, 'Boy, he's a pro,'" Trevor said. "'He's an artist, he's creative'—that doesn't mean a thing to me. But to be a pro, that goes right through the whole act. I think it requires a tremendous sense of responsibility to other people. I'm very responsible to my publishers in terms of deadlines and so on, and to my readers in terms of trying to wring every little shock and bit of suspense and drama for them and say, 'Hey kids, I think I've just cooked you a nice meal here. What do you think?'"
Both creator and creation are martial artists. But Quiller practices a special synthesis of oriental deadliness he learned at the Bureau's Norfolk installation, while Trevor studies the more conventional shotokan karate. Although he didn't take up karate until he was fifty-eight years old, Trevor attacked it with characteristic self-discipline and quickly earned his black belt. While the study has given him great satisfaction, it hasn't rubbed off on Quiller.
"I think very little of what Quiller does is in fact shotokan karate. When he fights, it's almost as if a doctor were working at it," Trevor said, giving us the most distinct clue we're likely to get about Quiller's origins.
Like the London Bridge, Trevor and his wife, Jonquil, wended their way around the world from England to Arizona—their last stop on a search for "somewhere civilized and in the sun." They live in Fountain Hills, a suburb of Phoenix marked by night with a magnificent, five-hundred-sixty-foot spotlighted tower of water and by day with an even more magnificent view of the gunmetal-blue Arizona mountains.
Their white stucco, Spanish-style house includes a garage with two white Cadillacs, separate guest quarters, a living room that opens to a mountain view and—a latter-day and grudgingly admitted addition—their TV projection system. There are whole walls of books, including Trevor's more than fifty novas and the books Jonquil uses in her work as a doctoral candidate in English at Arizona State. On one of the bookshelves sits the little Chaplinesque figurine thriller writers covet—the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, earned by Quiller.
Up the spiral staircase is Trevor's study. The room has only two permanent inhabitants, each of whom leaves the other strictly alone. "Did I tell you about my lady companion?" Trevor asks slyly. "She's black and elegant and if I am gentle with her, she's not going to bite. I've got a very old desk, and I never let the cleaning lady anywhere near it, for obvious reasons: I have a black widow living underneath the desk. I let her live there because the only things that are nasty around here are those little scorpions. I mean they can put you straight into the intensive care unit. And black widows like eating scorpions.
"I told my London publisher about it and he didn't believe me. So I brought him one at the book fair and dropped it into his hand as a present." The spider was dead, naturally. Trevor likes this publisher.
His study window overlooks the pool. Behind the pool is a strip of grass, about the size of a short stretch of sidewalk, carefully watered by Trevor each day in a ritual that is faintly amusing to those from less arid climates. Each evening at twilight, a task force of jackrabbits moves in from the desert to nibble at it.
The pool has a private meaning for Trevor. It once represented that cold place toward which Quiller's emotional compass always points: The Brink.
"Quiller's got to be on the brink," Trevor said. "He can't understand life, or handle life, unless it's there. Which does express a little bit of my own soul, I think.
"I've only done it twice in my life. I conquered the intense fear of swimming, of water. When I was about seven or eight years old, somebody threw me into a swimming pool. Fortunately, some bloke got me out by the heel and they put me by the side. And of course I had the most intense horror of water afterwards. The other thing was, I used to kick those horses like a bat out of hell across the Indian reservation down here. I was out on a limb so often that I thought, 'Well, this is stupid. I'm not a small boy anymore. I have a most lovely wife and a good son.' So I made a tiny breakthrough twice in my life. And that may be the seed of Quiller's intense need for being out on a limb.
"After all, isn't the whole of life some kind of catharsis? We see our own guilts, our own triumphs in other people. So I think Quiller has become a kind of vehicle for other people's neuroses. " Trevor said with a chuckle.
"I drive much too fast, for instance, and I know I shouldn't. When I do it, it's absolutely safe to do it, of course, but I still shouldn't do it. But I need to break that brink of ordinary speed. I find myself leaving late for appointments so that I've got to beat the hell out of the car to get there in time. This kind of brinkmanship, I think, is in all of us."
Born in Bromley, England, Trevor was educated in a British public school system that lived down to its terrible reputation. He recalls the bite of thin chains, wielded to punish such crimes as bad marks in Latin. "You had your name called out after prayers. You were to report to the junior common room. And you thought, 'Oh Christ.' Lining up outside, every boy white-faced, hearing the swishing going on inside, it was very sadistic.
"I had my hair grabbed once by what we called a beak, a master, and he grabbed another boy's head next to me and he just banged our heads together. It was that primitive. I know it was going back into the thirties but still it was more like the Middle Ages. There was a lot of lovely history there—huge, sort of two-hundred-year-old oak trees Henry VIII had ridden past. Beautiful cloisters. But, appropriately, it was almost a gothic sense that one got there. One night, I was going home, and I heard screams from a tower of a boy being beaten by another boy. The boys became sadistic because they were being taught that. I loathed that. I went home where there was never really any peace of mind, so I never knew what was going to happen next. I had no refuge really. I mean, I was loved by my parents, but the poor devils, not loving each other, they made it rough on everybody. In the morning, I couldn't wait to get out of the house—but I was going to get beaten. So this might have given me a certain sense of wanting a safe house. It could be why I wanted to hole up and write."
The experience left Trevor with a distaste for formal education, and consequently he got little of it. He turned directly to books for knowledge of the many subjects which interest him, among them brain research, zen philosophy, motivational psychology, performance under stress, physiology, even a bit of quantum mechanics. But when someone admires his intellect, Trevor routinely brushes aside the compliment with a self-deprecating remark about his lack of schooling.
Outdoors in the relentless southwestern glare, Trevor wears sunglasses almost constantly. He has something called a blond retina which makes his eyes extremely light-sensitive. The affliction was once a bitter disappointment to him. At the same time, it probably saved his neck.
He'd been apprenticed as a race driver before World War II, and that mechanical acumen earned him an RAF job working on the Spitfires. He wanted to fly them, but the likelihood of being sun-blinded in battle finished that idea. "I was nineteen, and at that age every nineteen-year-old's dream was to get in one of those Spittys. At that time, it was the fastest fighter in the world. So I was very disappointed. It obviously saved my life, because the attrition was quite terrible."
England at war was a time of "...tremendous camaraderie, and a kind of quiet anger," Trevor said. He can clearly recall that growl from the sky, like a dentist's drill. "They used to run their twin-engine bombers and sometimes their four-engine bombers out of sync, so that they had a throbbing reverberation in the sky," Trevor said. "It was understood that they were trying to frighten the hell out of us.
"The Blitz was like what a lot of people say about an airline pilot's life. It's four years of absolute boredom and two seconds of stark terror. It was mucky, the blackout wasn't fun. It was more of a damn nuisance than anything else. When you hear bombs come down, it's a very special experience because you can't do anything about them. You've just got to stand there. You hear them and then you hear the 'kar-rump' not far away, and then you hear the pattering of debris. And you think, 'Well, okay, that gives us another five minutes. We're running on borrowed time.'
"I do know what the body does when it hears a bomb landing quite close. In fact, I sometimes use that for my karate students in terms of giving 'kiiai,'—you know, the yell."
While his future wife worked—unknown to him—in RAF intelligence, Trevor filled the dead hours off the airfield by writing novels. Jonquil read him before she met him. Just after the war, she became an editor with Trevor's publisher. She braved a blizzard to fly in from the Channel Islands in time for a publisher's dinner, and there met Trevor. It was the winter of 1947.
"We had to drive past bombed-out London and wrecks and ruin," Trevor recalled. "There was that winding down over the city. We had come through a fairly long war and were lucky to be there and lucky to be together.
"We courted one night outside Buckingham Palace in the snow because we couldn't start the car. In the morning, mailmen and milkmen and policemen would rap the window and say, 'You all right in there?' We said, 'We're fine. Go Away.' The windows were steamed up. We had a marvelous time courting in that respect—it was the wickedest winter, but we had our love to keep us warm."
A decade later, with Trevor's career established and a young son in tow, they left England for the south of France. "It's easy to get shed of England," Trevor said with an edge in his voice, "or it was in 1958, because the socialists got in, the welfare state came in, nobody wanted to work, the atmosphere was gone. I think the war finished that country."
They visited Yuma, Arizona, during the filming of Trevor's desert survival adventure, The Flight of the Phoenix, and the delicious heat and friendly southwesterners drew them back later when their restlessness grew strong. Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough were among the stars of the movie. Trevor remembers listening with politely disguised disinterest as Attenborough described his dream of someday making a film about Gandhi. "Poverty and celibacy are not my sort of thing," Trevor explained simply.
Trevor wrote his first Quiller—The Quiller Memorandum—in 1965, including an afterthought in his notes, "Consider this for a series." He credits John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as one of Quiller's inspirations—despite the fact that Quiller was born before he ever read it.
"I saw a couple of reviews, sat up very straight and realized that somebody here was making a total breakthrough," Trevor said. "I'd never thought of James Bond as a serious spy.
"You know, just as an actor can be very much turned on by another actor's performance, a writer finds the same thing. It's very easy to borrow and to deceive yourself that it's your own material. So I denied myself reading that totally stupendous book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, until I'd finished my own. The vibes were in the air at that time. I don't know how many other authors began writing spy novels because they were turned on by Le Carre."
Quiller brought him bestseller status, critical acclaim, a film, a television series and even a cocktail—the "Quiller Chiller" at Milwaukee's famed Safe House bar (the drink is non-alcoholic, of course).
Although many of his other novels were equally successful, and some—at least in Trevor's mind—were probably better, the Quillers won a special affection from Trevor and his readers. As the fan letters arrived from 12-year-old boys and history professors and physicians and 8-year-old Canadian women, Trevor began to smell a cult following in the wind.
"It's rather alarming, really, how profoundly they feel about this Quiller," Trevor said. "I think, 'Well, what am I giving them?' They can quote chapter and verse."
And oddly enough, Trevor can't. This ordinarily clear and forceful man turns vague when asked about the details of his own books. Describing his habit of dropping the reader into a mysterious situation on the first page of the Quillers, he'll say, "In one of them, Quiller is fighting an opponent in pitch blackness..." "Warsaw Document," you shoot back. "Mmmm. Ah, yes. I think that was the one," Trevor will say, a little disconcerted by the unconscious modesty which permits fans to beat him to the quote.
A publisher once dubbed Trevor "the intellectual spy," and the remark started him wondering. "Obviously, Quiller is not nearly as intellectual as Le Carre," he said. "I mean, I just write for entertainment. I think I hit people's funny bone in terms of their inner drives, motivations, neuroses. I think they see in Quiller something that is in themselves. But it's not necessarily intellectual. I would say it's quite a bit more emotional."
Chief among the fans is son Jean-Pierre, a super-realistic painter of international note, who recently turned filmmaker. J.P.'s license plates are "Q-II" to Trevor's "Q-I."
Trevor takes particular pleasure in recalling a power failure which occurred when J.P. happened to be staying overnight. "The power came on at three in the morning. And J.P. heard the radio start up; the dishwasher, all the lights came on. And he just sat straight up in bed and said immediately, 'Ignore incoming data.'"
If film producers understood Quiller half as well as his fans do, Trevor would cheer. He thought the film of The Quiller Memorandum was bad, the BBC-TV series worse.
The movie was a prestige production, which starred George Segal, Alec Guiness, Max Van Sydow and Senta Berger, and boasted a screenplay by Harold Pinter. "Frankly, I think most of it was his fault," Trevor said. "Pinter's obviously an extremely fine playwright, but I think he hasn't got the knack of adapting. I think he's too obstrusive.
"I don't know why, for instance, they had to turn a neurotic, homosexual slut into a rosy-checked school teacher with butter melting all over her mouth. That was ridiculous. It took away from the drama."
Casting was also a problem. "Quiller's a bitten-eared alley cat with scars all over his face, all over his soul. He's always pushing the brink. Well, this is not George Segal. George Segal is for the girls and comedies and so on."
And the TV series? "I think that had better be summed up by saying that I called my lawyer in London and said, 'Can I sue the BBC?'"
The series, which starred Michael Jayston, was trouble from the word go. "Vibes began coming over from London. One—he was going to carry a gun. Two—he had a steady girlfriend. She was fired, of course. The BBC said it was because the Americans didn't like ha. Actually, it was because Adam Hall didn't like her. I said, 'Listen, you bought Quiller. Now for God's sake put Quiller on.'"
Trevor fought to prevent his lone wolf from being transformed into a lapdog. "They wanted to make him more suave, more urbane, more clubby, all this business, and it just wasn't Quiller. I said to them, 'You will not do this program unless I see the scripts!' And the scripts came over to Arizona, and I had to do weeks and possibly months of absolutely unpaid work on these ghastly scripts. I had to tell the BBC that you don't jump onto an oil rig from a rowboat because it's a hundred feet above the waves—this kind of clumsy amateurism." The reviews were so bad that a reissue of the novels was pulled so that all references to the series could be dropped from the covers.
Still, that's only two strikes. Another screen Quiller isn't out of the question, yet. In fact, an incipient English film deal has gotten Trevor back into the game of Quiller-casting. Friends have suggested Roy Scheider, and Trevor—after watching "Reilly, Ace of Spies"—is inclined toward Sam Neill
Meanwhile, the print Quiller is at peak exposure, with Jove reissuing all the previous novels in paperback and preparing campaigns for the next one. Trevor's especially pleased because, after The Peking Target, the 10th novel, he thought Quiller had bought it. Elleston Trevor was outselling Adam Hall, and he was afraid he couldn't financially justify another Quiller.
"I thought that was it. Goodbye, Quiller. When they got me to do number 11, I thought, 'We want to make some changes. Let's not just call this number 11 and the next one number 12.' I never thought about his leaving the Bureau. But since he became expendable, it's a perfect excuse for him to leave."
In Quiller, the 11th novel, the Bureau delivers the final punch to his abused loyalty—setting up Quiller's murder as the calculated result of his mission. At the beginning of the new novel, an outraged Quiller has resigned. He's headed for a freelance mission in Singapore and ultimately a confrontation with Shoda, a man-hating mercenary whose passion for stilettos has earned her the sobriquet "Kiss of Steel."
Quiller's return to the Far East reflects Trevor's love of things oriental. When the Trevors aren't actually in the orient, you're more than likely to find them at their favorite Japanese restaurant in Phoenix. Or, if it's Saturday morning, you'll find Trevor in the white gi with the black belt down at the dojo. That hour with his sensei is the treat of the week for Trevor, whose daily routine runs by the stopwatch. The time at the typewriter is sandwiched by a 45-minute working breakfast, a half-hour spent reading someone else's novel, 20 minutes with the newspaper and a strict five minutes with a model plane "...because I want to get the damn thing built and I'm not going to spend any more than five minutes on it."
Trevor is fascinated by the ritual, the art, and particularly the philosophy of the East as expressed in the serious martial arts—a meta-macho aversion to violence. "If anyone wants to sock me on the jaw, it's nothing to do with me. It isn't me he dislikes, unless of course I've just goosed his girlfriend. He's getting his jollies, getting rid of his rage, on me. I would prefer to bow and walk away, acknowledging his need to use me as a vehicle for his outrage."
Quiller has visited the U.S. only once, briefly, and isn't likely to return. "I can't imagine Quiller in McDonald's or on Broadway or in a Greyhound coach," Trevor said. "It's a different way of life, and this is why we love living in America. We love the openness of the society, we love the hearts on the bumpers.
"Europe is full of fog and frontiers on each other's doorstep. There's a sense of mystery. The British are a very shrewd and rather cunning race, and they will look after each other in terms of establishmentarianism. They're good cover-uppers. They make good spies.
"America is a much more open-thinking country. It likes everything on the table. It sits very ill on them that they have to have spies at all.
"I do think some of (the CIA's) dirty tricks seem to be unnecessarily dirty. But then, I may be speaking with a small voice from the other side of the world. Fair play is no longer in fashion."
The obvious question, given the verisimilitude of Quiller's chilly world, is whether Trevor was involved in real espionage. "We always talk about the weather when that comes up," he says, politely but firmly.
Dan Hagen is an award-winning feature writer/editor at the Mattoon, IL. Journal Gazette and Charleston, IL. Times-Courier.
Update: As of mid 1998, Dan is managing editor at the News-Progress newspaper in Sullivan, Illinois.
The September 1987 issue of Espionage Magazine