The Spy Who Came in From the Dojo

By Dan Hagen

I supposed that I had 15 seconds, 20, but no more than that, to do what I could to stay alive. The man stopped withdrawing from the plexus strike and came in again, blocking my wrist and swinging one elbow in a curving blow for the chin and nearly connecting but—losing the force that would have snapped my neck as I felt it whipping past my cheek before the momentum died. It left his body open, and it was here that I would have to work like a surgeon, remembering the charts and the wire-and-rubber dummies and the long nights in Norfolk where Mashiro and Yamada and Dr. Dietrich had shown us that in dealing with a terminal confrontation one must try to move away from the kinetic action and concentrate on the body itself, feeling for its weak areas and worming one's way into the nerve centers and the major vessels and the vital organs where even a finger can stun or shock to death, given applied force.
     His body was still open to me during the next few microseconds and I went for the seventh intercostal area to the left of the celiac plexus with a center-knuckle strike that connected and penetrated as far as the main fist profile before he doubled and broke its force; but I knew I must have reached the spleen and started internal bleeding because of the depth I’d achieved. He'd started to regurgitate and his breath was blocked off, and he had to come back at me without thinking, moving directly into Zen and using me as a reflection of his own body, hooking one foot into a sweep and bringing me down with one hand saving me and the outline of his bare foot filling my vision as he drove down with the force of a swinging ax against my face...

—"Adam Hall" aka Elleston Trevor
The Peking Target

The Spy Who Came in From the DojoThe man doing the fighting is Quiller. Quiller's opponent, an expert in a deadly amalgam of the martial arts, as is Quiller, is about to meet his demise. The place is England's clandestine installation at Norfolk. It's a training ground for the short-lived "shadow executives" who work for an outfit called the Bureau.
     You won't find the Bureau listed in the London telephone directory. But if you talk about it loudly enough, you'll win a visit from a high-ranking official of the British government. Politely but very firmly, he'll tell you to shut up. And he'll inform you that the Bureau doesn't exist.
     Who? Quiller? Never heard of the gentleman.
     Quiller is a British secret agent with the mind of a chess master, the skills of a commando and all the patience of a cornered cheetah. He's the hero of a long-running series of novels, a BBC television series and a major motion picture (The Quiller Memorandum, 1967).
     Quiller is the brainchild—and in some ways the alter ego—of British expatriate novelist Elleston Trevor. Both creator and creation are martial artists, expert drivers and "bloody-minded" individualists.
     And both the novelist and his son, painter Jean-Pierre Trevor, are third kyu brown belts in shotokan karate. Elleston Trevor donned his first gi four years ago—at age 58.
     The latest Quiller adventure, The Peking Target, was published in hardcover this year by Playboy Press and is forthcoming in paperback. In it, Quiller faces the most dangerous adversary of his career: the terrorist Tung Kuo-feng, a martial artist so attuned to the power of ki that the very air around him becomes a telekinetic weapon.
     Whenever a new Quiller book is published, a hardcore corps of almost fanatic fans scoots forward to the edge of their seats. The fans—which include young girls, ivy-league professors, black belts in London and Canadian women in their 80s—sometimes embarrass Trevor. They can often quote the novels more accurately than he can.
     Why all the enthusiasm? The realism of Quiller's motivations may have something to do with it.
     Quiller knows, you see, that this business about Queen and country is well and good—but it's got little to do with his reasons for becoming a spy. Like many a test pilot and bullfighter before him, he's an addict.
     He doesn't drink or smoke. They're habits that slow the reactions. And he needs every split second of his cat-fast reaction time if he's going to stay alive long enough to taste his one big vice: the gut thrill.
     "I'm in this trade to prove myself," Quiller admits in one of his adventures. "I'm frightened of pushing things to the point where they might blow up—so that's what I go on doing, to prove I'm not frightened."
     The thing to remember about Quiller is that he's a professional. If he's still alive, he'll reach the objective—no question. His inner bag of tricks includes expertise not only in the martial arts, but also in motivational psychology, sleep dynamics, the nervous system and behavior under stress. His code name includes the nine suffix—not an honor you go out of your way to earn. It means, "reliable under torture."
     Quiller's professionalism is illustrated by the fact that he always works alone, and never carries a gun. More than 35 missions have taught him that guns lend you a false self-confidence and lead to a possible fatal complacency. Better to rely only on your wits and the hard hours you spend at Norfolk honing yourself into a hair-trigger weapon.
     Thanks to Trevor's stylized stream-of-consciousness approach, we know the inner workings of Quiller's mind. But we know nothing of his past.
     Over a cup of coffee in the Bureau cafeteria, you may pick up the rumor that he was once a lawyer or a doctor who somehow got into trouble. Or you may hear that he was unjustly imprisoned. You'll nod and say, "That explains all that bitterness."
     His women could tell you little more. They are laconic and lean and they carry their own hidden scars. To Quiller, they are both lovers and mirrors. He remains a shadowy figure, and he likes it that way.
     The shadowy figure behind the shadowy figure is Elleston Trevor. Using the pseudonym of Adam Hall, he has penned ten Quiller adventures so far. They've gotten him translated into 18 languages and won him both the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America and the French Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere.
     Not that Trevor really needed the help of "Adam Hall." The numerous novels he has written under his own name are not unfamiliar to readers around the world.
     The Damocles Sword, for example, was a paperback bestseller this year. His desert survival adventure, The Flight of the Phoenix, became a critically acclaimed 20th Century-Fox film in 1966. And principle photography on an adaptation of Trevor's book The Theta Syndrome was scheduled to have begun September in London's Pinewood studios.
     He lives that sort of smoking jacket life most of us only fantasize about (even though he doesn't smoke). It's a life of swimming pools, orange groves, book-lined walls and year-round sunshine. It includes chess, model airplane building and amateur research into a variety of scholarly fields. It excludes television, which he can't stand.
     The house he built in Fountain Hills, Arizona, looks out upon a magnificent, mountainous landscape that is worlds and years away from his native England. On any clear night, Trevor may feel the impulse to grab rugs and a pair of field glasses. He'll stretch his angular six-foot, two-inch frame out in the backyard and spend hours stargazing with his wife, Jonquil.
     And, for a change of pace, there are fast cars. Trevor was apprenticed as a race-car driver before World War II transformed him into an RAF mechanic on the Spitfires. He finds his gut thrills behind the wheel of a car which bears the license plate "Q I"—and inside the dojo of his sensei, Shojiro Koyama.
     Now in his mid-40s, the Tokyo-born Koyama is a sixth dan black belt in shotokan. "He says that he was very much lacking in confidence as a boy and for that reason began to study karate," Trevor said. "He can do one of those flying kicks right across the ballroom. He's very much loved. People will bring kids of three years old to the dojo, take one look around and know that it's okay to leave them there."
     Trevor's respect for Koyama is illustrated by the fact that The Peking Target is dedicated to him. "He's made a lot of difference to my life," Trevor said.
     It's doubtful that Trevor could have begun a serious study of karate at age 58 if he hadn't taken pains to remain fit throughout his life. A long-time student of yoga, Trevor once hurled his collection of classic pipes off the cliffs of Dover in a symbolic choice between breathing and smoking.
     Still, some of his earlier experiences came in handy for the martial arts. "I do know what the body does when it hears a bomb landing quite close," Trevor said, recalling the blackest nights in London. "In fact, I use that sometimes for my karate students in terms of giving 'kiai.'"
     His late plunge into the Oriental fighting skills began with the Chinese art kenpo (ch'uan fa). He found kenpo's emphasis on such techniques as groin strikes and eye gouging to be very effective for the street. But a conflict of hours led him to shift to shotokan.
     "I liked it less for a couple of years because it wasn't so flashy," Trevor said. "Gradually, I realized that we are indeed mainlining in shotokan karate. There's so much more—mentally and spiritually—to it."
     "One learns to use the body," Trevor said. "One learns to transcend by a long way the limitations that one thought the body had. I'm doing things at 62 which would have been impossible for me at 16, simply because I wasn't old enough to understand what the man was saying."
     Karate can overcome not only the artificial restrictions of the body, but also of the mind, Trevor said. It all fits in with his growing interest in the area of maximum performance.
     "That kind of thing has began to fascinate me more—the loneliness of the long-distance runner, of the world-class athlete. In spite of the fact that they are godfathered by their coaches, when the chips are down it is they who are playing alone at the table.
     "This is why karate appeals to me enormously. Football bores the hell out of me, simply because there are so many people around. Not that I don't like to rely on my fellow men, or like them to rely on me. It is that karate fines down the environment to this one, personal attack on one's own limitations."
     And karate has helped his work in a very basic way, he said. "I know myself better. I know other people better. There's nothing quite like karate to reveal character. I always said that I can tell what a man is like by the way he drives a car. Now I can tell by the way he walks into the dojo."
     Trevor and son Jean-Pierre, acting as Koyama's assistants, teach the white belts in the dojo. They are literally best friends (J.P. even has the license number "Q II" on his Datsun 280ZX). You can find J.P. in almost every bookstore in the country. His is the half-shadowed face which appears under a German SS officer's cap on the cover of The Damocles Sword. It's a self-portrait.
     "I don't find any rivalry with him," Trevor said. "We punch each other up a little and so on, but what we do is improve each other's karate enormously by helping each other. I've just had a lesson from my teacher, and the next time I see him I'll say, 'By the way, the twist on that hip tensions the whole body and watch your right heel.' And he will say, 'Oh, I never thought of that, thank you,' and then we'll practice it together.
     "This is far much more fun than rivalry, For a 62-year old to try to rival a 33-year old is sudden death anyway. He's immensely more powerful than I am. That's ridiculous. I try to keep up with him."
     Trevor had another very specific reason for becoming a martial artist: in order to lend authenticity to Quiller's battles. "The early books, when they mentioned any kind of karate, were cheats," Trevor admits cheerfully.
     He invented Oriental words which sounded right, pretending for the sake of drama that the Bureau taught some special synthesis of the martial arts. As a skillful stylist who writes with a great deal of conviction, Trevor was able to get away with it. For the most part.
     A British Quiller fan, who also happened to be a martial artist, wrote to Trevor after the publication of The Kobra Manifesto. Had Quiller really used a tobi-mae-geri when he was cornered in that alley, or was it a tobi-yoko-geri? The fan ended by suggesting that Quiller look into the esoteric but streetwise Chinese boxing style wing chun kung fu.
     Trevor has always had a passion for backing up his fiction writing with research—even though he can't use 90 percent of what he learns. Before Quiller's supersonic incursion into Iron Curtain airspace in The Sinkiang Executive, Trevor wrangled a complete briefing from jet fighter pilots at an Arizona Air Force base. It was almost a foregone conclusion that he would eventually turn to the martial arts.
     But oddly enough, Trevor and Quiller still have different fighting styles. "I think very little of what Quiller does, in fact, is shotokan karate," he said. "I think the most elaborate use of any kind of combat skill is in The Peking Target—which is certainly not any form of karate as I understand it. It's almost as if a doctor were working at it."
     The Peking Target marks a shift for Quiller. For the first time, an element of the "supernatural" enters into his harsh, technological world. Trevor's reference to the telekinetic powers of ki wasn't made lightly for mere dramatic effect.
     "There is ki in all the martial arts," he said. "Some people call it centering.
     "We are all in fact supercreatures, but we don't allow ourselves to be. We cringe behind our defensive ordinary perceptions.
     "We don't live nearly enough spiritually, and I'm not talking about religion. I don't have a religion. But I happen to know that the atoms of my body were inside the Big Bang. My religion, if I ever had one, was that I am a part of the cosmos. And therefore I feel that if I can turn the key or open the door, or whatever you want to call it, I can tap the energy of the cosmos. And we all can."
     The telepathic powers attributed to ki will play a role in the film of The Theta Syndrome, which combines elements of both the Karen Silkwood and Karen Ann Quinlan cases into one plot.
     Although he is looking forward to the production, Trevor has mixed feelings about the film adaption of his work. On one hand, there is Robert Aldrich's thoroughly successful 1966 version of The Flight of the Phoenix, starring Jimmy Stewart and Peter Finch. On the other, there is The Quiller Memorandum.
     Quiller was the prestige 20th Century-Fox production which starred George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berger. But the movie was disappointing to Trevor—ironically so because the screenplay had been written by celebrated playwright Harold Pinter.
     "The first time I heard that Pinter was going to do it, I said, 'Jolly good show.'" But Trevor changed his tune after he'd seen the film. Among other things, it transformed his female protagonist from a homosexual "Bunker slut" into "...a dewy-eyed schoolteacher with butter melting all-over her mouth."
     And although we may know-little about Quiller's identity, we do have one fact on good authority: he doesn't look like George Segal. "Segal is a fine romantic actor but is certainly not Quiller," Trevor said. "He doesn't look harrowed enough. He doesn't look weathered enough. Bogart, had he been the right age at the right time, would have been perfect."
     Trevor would like to see another Quiller film made—if it's true to the basic character. "He's so difficult to film, realistically. They give him a gun, they give him a blonde. I think the film people are absolutely afraid of Quiller. If they shoot him as he is, they're afraid that nobody's going to be interested."
     Films, of course, will come and go. For Trevor, there is always the considerable satisfaction of getting back to the typewriter and squeezing his characters into another tight spot—a spot where they will either learn their limitations, or learn to transcend them.
     "I was coming out of the dojo this morning," he said. "A black belt was there, and he said, 'I just finished your Flight of the Phoenix again. My god, you really like to put your characters with their backs to the wall, don't you?'"
     "And I said, 'What do you think I'm doing here in this dojo in a gi? I'm backed into the wall myself—so that I can get out through becoming a good karateka.'"

Dan Hagen is a staff writer for the Charleston, Illinois, Times-Courier and a former martial arts student.

Update: As of mid 1998, Dan is managing editor at the News-Progress newspaper in Sullivan, Illinois.

  The October 1982 issue of Fighting Stars

Last modified: Friday, November 29, 2002

"The Spy Who Came in From the Dojo" and the accompanying image were originally published in the October 1982 issue of Fighting Stars [Vol. IX, No. 5] and is reprinted here with the author's permission..
Photo by Jean-Pierre Trevor.