The Trevor Memorandum

A Final Interview with Elleston Trevor by Matthew R. Bradley

       I was privileged to know Elleston Trevor during the last five years of his life, and even more so to call myself his friend. Over a period of fifty-five years, this prolific and chameleonic writer produced more than a hundred books of every description for readers of all ages. The Adam Hall byline on the Quiller spy novels, for which he is best known, was but one of at least ten names he used, including his own; appropriately, he possessed both talent and heart enough for ten men. Unfailingly generous with his time and advice to aspiring writers, he had a unique ability to make each fan feel like the most important person on Earth, and the critical acclaim and international success he enjoyed (his work was translated into thirty-four languages and reprinted by thirty-two book clubs) were equaled by the devotion he inspired among his readers, who avidly devoured each new Quiller novel. But Quiller, completely indomitable on the printed page, at last met defeat when his creator was laid low by cancer at the age of seventy-five, only three days after finishing his hero’s nineteenth adventure, Quiller Balalaika. He died on July 21, 1995, at his home near Scottsdale in the Arizona desert, a locale with which he first fell in love as technical director during the filming of one of his most famous stories, The Flight of the Phoenix, and from which I interviewed him by telephone in April 1994.

Q:    In addition to Adam Hall, you have also used at least eight other pseudonyms. Why so many?

A:    When I began writing there was a war on, and I used to write a novel in two weeks in my spare time. Some may call that verbal incontinence, but be that as it may they were all published. One of my publishers—I had about five—said, “You’ve got to have some different names.” “Why?” “It will sound as though you’re potboiling.” “Aren’t I?” “No, these are very good books.” “Okay, we’ll have different names.” This was a kind of tradition in the period. I didn’t have a real pseudonym until Adam Hall, which was much later, at a time when I was writing a book a year and there were very different reasons for having one, not just to escape the potboiling stigma. I don’t care about all those other names. They were fun when I was them, but that’s old hat. Adam Hall now is the only pseudonym I have, and he writes only Quiller.

Q:    Did you have any particular method for picking them?

A:    Tongue in cheek. There was Jupiter Jones, Caesar Smith, Jack Tango, Dudley Burgess, and Simon Rattray, who wrote the Hugo Bishop books. But when my New York agent got the dust off those in a second-hand bookshop and got them back into reissue, Harper wanted to use the Adam Hall name. Simon Rattray wrote the five Bishop books, and I kept the BBC in material for months, because I would write a half-hour play, then an hour-and-a-half play, and the whole thing was taken straight from the books. I sucked those plots right to the skin, which was great.

Q:    What is it that keeps drawing you back to the mystery and suspense field?

A:    I think mystery draws most people. To a certain extent, there is mystery in all the Quiller books. They purport to be espionage, but in fact not too many of them have been about espionage, especially lately, he’s been after terrorists more. Mystery is a cloak for a secret. If you can solve the mystery you’ve got to a secret. We all love secrets, especially other people’s. We wish we knew what they were, and there couldn’t have been too many children who never looked through a keyhole. I found them irresistible, because there was a world inside that room on the other side, which I didn’t know anything about, wasn’t party to. Man is so thirsty for information, always trying to find things out, to discover. We feel that anybody else’s secret, any mystery, hides information that we want to get into. If we want to find out other people’s secrets, why shouldn’t we want to find out what’s happening behind the curtain?

Q:    Your work has been compared favorably with that of Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, and Erich Maria Remarque. Would you cite any particular literary influences on your writing?

A:    There weren’t in the sense that I would read somebody’s book and be influenced by the way they wrote, except a man probably you’ve never heard of. Nigel Balchin was an Englishman who wrote a novel called The Small Back Room, which came out just after the war. He was an astonishing writer, kind of an English Hemingway. He broke totally new ground at the time. His book began, “The day they took my foot off...” That’s not a bad dramatic hook. He had an almost conversational style, quite lovely, and influenced my first few “real” books, say books #23, 24, and 25. I didn’t copy his style as an artist would copy a master, but there were certainly undertones of his style in my writing. Then I shed that skin and became myself.

Q:    You were influenced in a rather unusual way in writing The Quiller Memorandum, which won both the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the French Grand Prix de Littérature Policière.

A:    I was influenced by a review of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. That made me, and I think every single fiction writer, sit up when we realized that here was a spy writer among us. We’d had John Buchan and Eric Ambler, but we realized that like Bond, they were to entertain; they were glossy and magnetic, but they were not le Carré. I read the review, bought his book, put it on the shelf unopened, wrote Memorandum, and then was able to read his book, because writers are kind of like magpies, we pinch from one another. I was aware of that danger, so I didn’t read his book until I’d written Memorandum, which obviously was nothing like his book, nothing like as good, but he was very much an influence for the whole of the Quiller series. Just before Quiller was born, I wrote a book I didn’t like, The Volcanoes of San Domingo, under the name Jack Tango. I called my publisher and said, “I’ve written this book, I don’t like it much, and you won’t want to publish it, so I’ve sent it off to a different house.” “Hey, you owe us a book under the two-book contract.” “Yes, I know, don’t go away, I will write you a quickie.” The quickie was The Flight of the Phoenix, which he was thoroughly happy with. Meanwhile, I got a note from the other publisher saying, “Dear Mr. Tango, who are you really?  We love your book, and want to sign it up.” They too wanted a two-book contract, so there I was with two publishers and another book to write. I didn’t know what else to do except a spy novel, because Volcanoes had a hint of spying, and even though I didn’t like it, it did have the precursor of Quiller in it, very recognizably so. So I wrote a spy novel called The Quiller Memorandum, or The Berlin Memorandum in England, stimulated by the le Carré syndrome, and that fulfilled my contract for the second publisher. Then they wanted more Quillers, so I had two publishers, and Adam Hall was born out of a phonebook. I remember putting in the plot book for Memorandum, “Consider making a series of this.” So that’s what happened. Out of one bad book I got a couple of good ones, and Adam Hall was born.

Q:    Like yourself, Quiller has adopted a number of pseudonyms over the years, and even “Quiller” itself is a only code-name used within the Bureau that employs him. Not that I would expect you to reveal it to us, but do you yourself know what his real name is?

A:    Yes, of course I do, and if I tell you, please don’t tell anybody else. It’s John Smith.

Q:    One of the most distinctive features of the Quiller novels is their terse, elliptical first-person narration. How do you put yourself so convincingly into your protagonist’s head?

A:    I think writers tend to be like actors in that they have to put all these hats on, especially in the third person, where you have to write about a dozen different people of different sexes in different walks of life. I can’t write about somebody unless I try to be them, really get inside their skin, and this is why I enjoy it. I really climb into Quiller’s skin when I start writing. A lot of what he is, is what I am and have been. One of the books begins with a neophyte spy back in London from his first mission, where he got captured and grilled and gave away his station. Quiller is brought in to help the poor chap get over it, and describes the young man sitting there in the straight-back chair, pale, shaking, ashamed, and suicidal, with his cuffs showing and his feet together, just like a schoolboy before the headmaster. Suddenly I am saying, “Those bloody school days, won’t they ever leave us?” That obviously came straight out of my psyche, because I had the most appalling school days, most British kids did. I asked a local policeman, an Englishman, “What are you doing in the Scottsdale police?” “Well, I was in the Marines.” “You like life tough, don’t you?” “Let’s face it, anything’s easy after a British prep school.” A lot of the rage I felt toward those people comes out in Quiller. For the Bureau, read the headmaster and his cohorts, maybe that’s the Bureau in my mind, who knows?  I like being in Quiller’s skin so I can get back at all those people. Another thing that comes out is Quiller’s respect for women. He’s only killed twice in cold blood rather than self-defense, and on each occasion it was to avenge a woman’s death. One was in The Sinkiang Executive, and the other I’m not going to say at this point. He doesn’t like killing in cold blood. Oddly enough, I had a fairly easy war. I was in the London blitz most of the time and being bombed on airfields, but I never had to pick up a gun and aim it at another human being and kill him. I don’t think I could have, especially as a kid of nineteen. I observe myself very carefully, and this morning as I was going to the garage to get my car, thinking quite deeply, something caught the periphery of my attention. It was a series of ripples across the water of the dog’s bowl. I went on walking, suddenly stopped and thought, “Why have I got to stop?  Oh, it’s those ripples.” I went back and there was a fly in there. I got it out on my fingertip, and it flew away. I went back to get the car, thinking, “Why the hell did I do that?” Because if I see a fly on my desk, I will stalk it with my fly swatter and crush it. That’s self-defense. If that fly keeps buzzing around I can’t work, and anybody who gets in the way of my work is in big trouble. But those ripples were kind of visible cries for help, and I couldn’t ignore them. This comes out in Quiller. He feels very strongly about rescuing people, yet refuses categorically to kill in cold blood, except those two times. He’s not proud of it, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Q:    Quiller does display attitudes towards women quite different from spies in Fleming’s gadget-laden, girl-chasing James Bond mold. How else would you contrast Quiller with Bond?

A:    I’ve only read one, Goldfinger. It was hysterically funny, absolutely great. Then I tried Doctor No, and couldn’t take more than a chapter, so that was it. I can’t really talk about Bond, not having read more than one. Perhaps the newer John Gardner ones are more interesting. The movies aren’t the kind I go to. I suppose it’s inevitable that Quiller’s linked with Bond, because he’s a series character, but totally different. Quiller’s an alley-cat with scars all over his body, doesn’t even know what a tuxedo is. He’s very down to earth. I try to dig deeper in Quiller, and as a result have some pretty rabid fans who recognize whatever I put there. They’re railing against their headmasters, too. It’s Quiller’s resentment of the way he’s been run—many find that resonating in different ways. The strange thing is, I was a high school dropout, and don’t think I’m at all intellectual, but I have very intellectual fans. Half the stuff they’re saying is way above my head, quite out of my reach, which is great. I just hope they never find out.

Q:    Quiller not only doesn’t know what a tuxedo is, he never carries a gun, either.

A:    Maybe that’s part of not wanting to kill—if he had a gun he might be tempted. He considers a gun a crutch. Somebody with a gun has a false sense of security, and if he gets caught without it, he’s had it, but if he has his wits and his karate hands to use, he’s in better shape.

Q:    Karate skills are another thing you and Quiller share, aren’t they?

A:    I was in karate for ten years. I went in at sixty and became a black belt at sixty-four. For my test I had to spar with a boy of eighteen—who was very good, much faster—and rather enjoyed myself, because this crusty old lion was a little smarter than he. All the karate in Quiller is genuine. I was in Shotokan, which began the whole series of martial arts, but I mix in some stuff of my own. You certainly don’t drive your opponent’s nose bone through his brain in Shotokan. I was also in Ken-po, discreet eye-gouging and so on—we call it “for the street.”

Q:    The Quiller novels are celebrated for their realism, in terms of both espionage “tradecraft” and their varied and exotic settings. What sorts of research do you do to ensure this?

A:    I never go near a library to research, because I don’t have time to read all those books. Here’s a case in point:  I was setting Quiller in Tibet, so I trotted down to the bookstore and bought a guide to Tibet. I called the publisher and asked if I might speak to one of the authors, because they sounded a hell of a lot of fun, good chaps to talk to. They said, “We’re just the distributors, it’s published in Australia.” I called the publisher in Australia and asked the same question, and the time zones being fortuitous, within twenty-four hours I was talking to one of them in Katmandu. I have some nice people at Arizona State University. I give them all my books for their special collections department, and they help by putting me in touch with professors of this that and the other. One had just come back from Tibet, and I spent a lovely evening hearing about his trip. The sort of question I ask is not “How far is the airport from downtown,” but “What do the streets smell of?” Surprisingly, this often throws them. “Smell of?  Well, now you mention it, they smell of goats, quite strongly.” They haven’t been thinking about the smell, they’ve been thinking about their geological pursuits or whatever. That’s the real thing, it’s much much more important to me to ask what the streets smell of. I try to be as accurate as I can. Even before I’d been to Hong Kong I got a parking ticket, because Quiller was there and finds a ticket under his wiper, and I needed the exact wording. So I called the Hong Kong police, and they kindly sent me one marked “cancelled,” and I got it right.

Q:    One of the greatest challenges for today’s espionage writers has been the end of the Cold War, which many predicted would spell the end of spy fiction. How did you adjust to this?

A:    Five people interviewed me on this, including Newsweek, and they didn’t print it because I said, “What the hell are you talking about?  You think there’s no more need for spies now that there’s no more Communist Russia?” A guy like Zhirinsky is pretty close to the button controlling 27,000 nuclear missiles. There’s also more need now for spying in North Korea, Bosnia, Pakistan, Africa. The world is much less stable than when there were just the two giants; it’s very disbalanced, and the big problem is how to stop small nuclear wars which could proliferate, where before there was just the hope that we could stop the big one. Small can become big; there’s terrible danger in Moscow. Yeltsin’s had five car crashes so far, he sticks too close to the bottle, he’s not terribly well. If he’s unseated I don’t know who will get in. I don’t think Zhirnsky, he’s just a clown, but somebody far worse with the same ideas of invading Germany. The future is certainly not rosy, so there’s more need for espionage than ever. I was astonished that le Carré, great writer that he is, bailed out and started to write about industrial espionage—not quite the real thing, to my mind; just business, not bloodshed. I know he’s far more brainy than I, far more erudite and informed, but he decided spying meant Cold War and that was it. To me spying is everywhere and will always be. It’s been going on since the Lord told Moses to spy out the land of Canaan. That was the first spy story. It’s man’s nature to seek information and secrets, and in espionage you’ve got the dangerous, threatening secret. So I’ve had no problem, but as I said, not too many of the Quillers have been about spying.

Q:    How do you feel Hollywood treated The Flight of the Phoenix and The Quiller Memorandum?

A:    Hollywood’s a name for a lot of people, and people are very different. I was treated extremely well on Phoenix by Robert Aldrich. He was a very fine producer and director, and it was a very good movie. With Memorandum, there was the most wild miscasting right at the start. They chose George Segal, a young, romantic, American actor, for my English, bitten-eared alley cat with scars. When I heard Harold Pinter was doing the script I thought, “Wow, how marvelous, I’m very honored,” but I discovered that while he’s a great playwright, sometimes he can’t adapt too well, and he wrote a terrible screenplay. It was full of longeurs—he’s famous for them—but when you wanted pace you didn’t get it. The New York Times headed its film review, “Better read the book and here’s why,” and listed all the stuff that was taken out. So Memorandum was a disaster. We had Alec Guinness and Max Von Sydow, so it had its glitz side, but it bombed, and rightly so. The film industry doesn’t “treat” you, they’re so busy covering ass and being panic-stricken at the enormous money involved that they’re all trying to save themselves. I don’t speak of the really great filmmakers, but Hollywood in general. It’s panic stations most of the time, and I feel for them. The BBC did a terrible thing, too. They made a Quiller TV series that was so bad, they only showed two segments in the States.

Q:    Doubtless your wartime experiences as a flight engineer with the R.A.F. enhanced the realism of The Flight of the Phoenix. Is it safe to assume the novel’s premise—a group of men trapped in the Sahara constructs an airplane out of the wreckage of another plane—is plausible?

A:    The publisher gave a copy to someone in the U.S. Air Force, who said, “Well...yes, it could just happen.” I know that it “could just,” but one might have to have a lighter, smaller plane, and less to move. I’m not an expert on dehydration. I knew about the airplane, but I wasn’t sure how long these chaps could last. I think the reader doesn’t care much, because the idea is interesting enough. It’s possible, depending on the plane, the people, the circumstances.

Q:    How have your feelings as a British expatriate informed your quintessentially British hero?

A:    One interesting thing about Quiller being so very English is that to my countrymen’s ear today, he is speaking archaic English. The first Quiller I wrote was in 1965, and I hadn’t been long out of England at that time, so I knew English English. Now, it’s twenty-nine years later. What woke me up was, I happened to be looking at television, and there was our Queen in Kentucky looking at some of the horses. She turned to the trainer and said, “How is this particular horse, temperament-wise?” I realized that if the Queen is using that kind of language today, and I haven’t been allowing Quiller even to say “hi” for all those books, he is speaking a quaint old English that I spoke and listened to when I was there. What has informed Quiller is the Englishman’s well-known flair for understatement, the art of raising an eyebrow instead of the roof. On one occasion Ferris answers Quiller with a few seconds of dead silence, and Quiller says this really means Ferris is clawing at the wall.

Q:    I understand there are plans for a series of Quiller films, beginning with The Ninth Directive.

A:    I once asked an American, “What really is a flake?” He thought for a minute and said, “One oar in the water.” At the moment the Hollywood lawyers have that oar in the water and are going around in circles, terrified that there may be some rights left over from Quiller Memorandum that would inhibit our plans for eighteen more movies. But we’re clearing that, I’m faxing London all the time. Producer Gary Lucchese, who has his own company and would be making it for United Artists, and his associate Bob McMinn are such Quiller fans that I really think we’ll get a good series. I said in the beginning, “Okay, gentlemen, let’s start with a fight. You’ll want to give Quiller a gun.” They backed off blenching and said, “No, no, this is Quiller.” That really woke me up, because they obviously wanted to be true to the prototype. That gave me great joy and confidence that we shall have a nice string of movies at last on Quiller. Maybe he isn’t totally right for the screen, but I think if it can be done successfully, these people can do it. That’s why I have a lot of hope and look forward to the next steps, which will be to find the right screenwriter and star and director and so on.

Q:    What can we look forward to in Quiller’s eighteenth adventure, Quiller Salamander, this fall?

A:    Hellish heat. Heartbreak. Quiller tortures for the first time in front of our very eyes. That’s tricky, because I’m so against it, but I thought it was time he did it. This book has the best last line of any of them; quite a lot is revealed in it. It’s set in Cambodia. He’s after the second-in-command of Pol Pot. The missions usually have some kind of geopolitical background, then the real work starts, which is in the characterization. With every Quiller I try to break new ground. In the next book, he will be taking on the Moscow Mafyia. Flycatcher is coming out this fall, too. That’s a Trevor, set in New York. I’m getting back now to having Trevor leap-frogging over Adam Hall, one book after the other. For a long time I got typecast. Every time I told the publisher, “I’d like to do a Trevor now,” they said, “Wait a minute, Quiller’s selling so well.” So they upped the ante a bit, and I was venal and went on writing Quillers. But I want very much to write about women—such a wonderful vein of exploration, so much more subtle than men, so much more up against it. In Flycatcher, we have a woman being led gently to her death at the hands of a serial killer by the spirit of the last woman he killed.

Last modified: Sunday, June 27, 2010

Copyright 1994 by Matthew R. Bradley. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. All rights reserved.