THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1965) by Adam Hall

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter Q, and my nomination, is …

THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM by Adam Hall

“As I walked back to the hotel the only tracks in the snow were my own.”

1965 was a vintage year for espionage. At the cinema Sean Connery was James Bond for the fourth, and most financially successful, time in Thunderball; Michael Caine was ‘Harry Palmer’ in Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File; John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was filmed with Richard Burton; and Rod Taylor was John Gardner’s The Liquidator. On TV Diana Rigg joined Patrick Macnee in The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE went from black and white into colour. Perhaps best of all, in the UK there was Patrick McGoohan as John Drake in Danger Man and all over the globe one could find I Spy starring Bill Cosby and the late Robert Culp. In fact the genre was doing so well that parodies were already popular, with Carry On Spying (1964) already a hit in UK cinemas and Get Smart and Wild Wild West were just getting started on American TV. This was also the year that Elleston Trevor as ‘Adam Hall’ began publishing the adventures of his secret agent ‘Quiller’. The first book in the series was originally published in the UK as The Berlin Memorandum but the title was altered under its better known variation The Quiller Memorandum for the US release and as it was also used for the popular movie version, that is how it best known today.

‘Quiller’ is only known by this code name – he works for a ‘Bureau’ that is so secret that it too doesn’t, for practical purposes, exist, and our hero’s involvement has to be directly requested by the Prime Minister. In Memorandum we learn that he was an infiltrator behind enemy lines during the second world war, helping prisoners escape from POW camps. This proves particularly important as this story, set in then contemporary 1960s Berlin is about neo-Nazis aiming to once again destabilise Western Europe. Quiller takes over an assignment from his assassinated colleague Kenneth Lindsay Jones in trying to find out the location of a base of operations of a group in Berlin known as Phonix, led by Oktober, who will become the main antagonist in the story. Quiller eventually uncovers a major conspiracy involving an outbreak of pneumonic plague and military action by the Mafia, Spanish fascists and the Egyptian government – but as befits the first person narration, the focus is much tighter and less melodramatic than this might suggest. Indeed one of the hallmarks of Hall’s series is his highly suspenseful sequences in which we find Quiller able to convincingly get out of incredibly tight spots – at one point this is effectuated in a remarkable sequence in which Quiller is able to subordinate his body to his will and make it shut down and thus stop the torture of himself and Inga, a perhaps not-so-innocent woman who becomes involved in the plot – by fainting. In Otto Penzler’s The Great Detectives (1978), Hall described Quiller in typically tough and no-nonsense terms:

“In his forties, he is as fit as an alley cat and his whole makeup is tense, edgy and bitten-eared … he needs to live close to the crunch. Like bullfighters and racing drivers, he is a professional neurotic, half in love with death … Quiller is versed in psychology, sleep dynamics, the nervous system and its behaviour under stress.”

He is a loner, utterly distrustful of the motives of everyone he meets, often angry and resentful. He also refuses to carry a gun: “I have never carried a gun in peace-time. It is an impediment, physically and psychologically.” This could make for a not particularly likeable protagonist, and certainly his lack of humour can be somewhat distancing, but it does help make the character much more believable. He knows he is both good at his job but seen as expendable by his masters, thrown into a situation as any other tool to do a job, without any sentiment attached to it. His position is nicely explained in a late exchange with Pol, the local control in Berlin – it’s so good in fact that when playwright Harold Pinter came to to write the screenplay for the excellent film adaptation, which considerably simplified the story once it turned the hero into an American far too young to have fought Nazis in the war (George Segal, in fine dyspeptic form, was only 31 at the time), he kept this exchange virtually intact:

“There are two opposing armies drawn up on the field, each ready to launch the big attach. but there is a heavy fog and they can’t sight each other. You are in the gap between them. You can see us but so far you can’t see them. Your mission is to get near enough to see them, and signal their position to us, giving us the advantage. That is where you are Quiller. In the gap.”

When this was first published, no less an author(ity) than John Dickson Carr proclaimed it to be, “… one of the best spy novels I’ve ever read”. How well does it stand up today? Well, the intensity of the writing is still extremely suspenseful and the sometimes strong language is certainly up-to-date. As noted above, there is occasionally something slightly remote about our hero that won’t please every reader. Indeed Quiller’s cold and seemingly detached point of view, often referring to his own body with something approaching contempt as ‘the organism’, could make for a needless cold-blooded entertainment; but ultimately this is a taut and well executed spy story that successfully berths itself somewhere between the high octane thrills of Ian Fleming and the more introverted Whitehall skullduggery more commonly associated with Deighton and le Carre at the time. This may not be the very best of the series – personally I would have to say that I prefer The Tango Briefing (1973) in particular – but this an exciting and well told story and an excellent start to a very long-lived sequence of novels.

In total there would be nineteen volumes in the series – considerably more than say those featuring James Bond, le Carre’s George Smiley or Len Deighton’s later Bernie Sampson novels or his earlier works featuring an anonymous operative named ‘Harry Palmer’ in the movies. In the late 80s the series started being rebranded by its publishers and from the 11th book onwards all the titles would feature the word ‘Quiller’. In sequence the Quiller novels were as follows:

  1. The Berlin Memorandum (1965, US as ‘The Quiller Memorandum’)
  2. The 9th Directive (1966)
  3. The Striker Portfolio (1968)
  4. The Warsaw Document (1971)
  5. The Tango Briefing (1973)
  6. The Mandarin Cypher (1975)
  7. The Kobra Manifesto (1976)
  8. The Sinkiang Executive (1978)
  9. The Scorpion Signal (1979)
  10. The Pekin Target (1981, US as ‘The Peking Target’, 1982)
  11. Northlight (1985, US as ‘Quiller’)
  12. Quiller’s Run (1988)
  13. Quiller KGB (1989)
  14. Quiller Barracuda (1990)
  15. Quiller Bamboo (1991)
  16. Quiller Solitaire (1992)
  17. Quiller Meridian (1993)
  18. Quiller Salamander (1994)
  19. Quiller Balalaika (1996)

For more information about the Quiller novels, visit the official website: www.quiller.net/

For a more general look at Elleston Trevor’s life and work, there is a very comprehensive article by Petri Liukkonen to be found at: www.kirjasto.sci.fi/etrevor.htm. For further details about Trevor, visit his page at the site of his literary agency at: www.spectrumliteraryagency.com/trevor.htm

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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16 Responses to THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1965) by Adam Hall

  1. Mike Ripley says:

    An excellent tip of the old fedora and if I may add a blatant plug: THE NINTH DIRECTIVE and THE STRIKER PORTFOLIO are now published (print on demand) as Top Notch Thrillers from Ostara Publishing. Both come with Afterwords by the son of ‘Adam Hall’, Jean-Pierre Trevor which can also be found on the Ostara website (www.ostarapublishing.co.uk ).

    • Dear Mike,
      thank you for the comments as always – and thanks very much for providing the links to the next two books in the Quiller series. I had meant to point this out, especially as John Gardner’s The Liquidator is also available from your list (http://www.ostarapublishing.co.uk/book.html?id=59) – this was one of the reasons I name-checked it in the first place! Thanks very must for the reminder.

  2. Sergio – Thanks for this thorough review of the Quiller series. As I read your post, I was thinking about how rich that era was in spy thrillers. Some of them are quite well done, like the ones you’ve mentioned, and some are not. But it really seems to have been, as you might say, a golden age for the sub-genre…

  3. Thanks very much for reading Margot – I must admit, although I got a bit carried away with the 1965 scene setting, it was incredibly hard to stop myself as there is such a wealth of wonderful material within the espionage genre from that era – and as you say, a lot of machine-tooled junk too! The ‘Quiller’ books are well above average though and just seemed too god a ‘Q’ to pass up and I’m glad to say I was favourably impressed in re-reading this one for the first time in ages.

  4. Mrs P. says:

    Thanks very much for this fine review. As ever, a very enjoyable and illuminating read! I’ve just reread John le Carre’s Spy who Came in for the Cold and was very impressed by how this had stood the test of time. Never read any Hall – will try to get hold of a copy.

    • Good to hear from you Mrs P – SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is a fantastic book, especially if you read its predecessor, CALL FOR THE DEAD – have you listened to the audio adaptations starring Simon Russel Beale as Smiley? They”re really superb and I plan on blogging on them at some point (soon hopefully). Gary Oldman is playing Smiley in the new adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY which you might find of particular interest as it is being made by top swedish director Tomas Alfredson.

  5. John says:

    Excellent review; as someone who has read the entire series (and re-read at least twice; and some, like The Tango Briefing, four to five times or more over the years) I could not have covered it all better myself.

    • Hello John, welcome, and thanks very much for the comments, that’s extremely kind of you. Much appreciated. I hope to blog on the likes of William Haggard and especially Anthony Price soon as these seem to be two other perhaps now less well-known writers in a similar vein. Are there others that you might recommend?

  6. Bev says:

    As always, a very thorough and thoughtful review. I’m not a big fan of the spy genre myself, at least not in print–I’ve watched my share of Bond and the Avengers–but I enjoyed your review very much!

    Here’s my Q: http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2011/05/crime-fiction-alphabet-letter-q.html

    • Hello Bev, thanks very much for the kind words as always. I’m glad you liked the review – this is probably not a book that would necessarily make anyone a convert to the espionage genre, though its strong historical feel with its focus on Quiller’s activities in the war and his renewed fight against the Nazis does give it a significant edge. On the other hand, Len Deighton is the spy writer who I think would do it for many people not especially drawn to the genre, especially BERLIN GAME which is virtually my all time favourite, which probably means it’ll get blogged about in the fullness of time … and, if you do end up reading the entire 10 book sequence, it really does turn into that one thing that spy books admittedly tend not to be – one with an appreciably female-centric perspective.

  7. Mike Ripley says:

    Some famous names cropping up here in what, we seem to agreed, was a Golden Age for the British spy thriller. Some writers, like William Haggard and Simon Harvester, have dropped entirely from the radar and some fictional heroes are surely worth a revival – Johnny Fedora,David Callan, Dr Jason Love, Charles Hood, John Craig anyone?
    Fortunaterly some of the best writers are still with us and still remembered. Le Carre
    continues to produce superb stuff (viz: OUR KIND OF TRAITOR in 2010) and Len Deighton remains in print (THE IPCRESS FILE back in 1962 being a real mould-breaker) as does Anthony Price, surely one of the most distinctive voices in spy fiction although he himself, long retired to rural Oxforshire, regards his novels now “more as archaeology rather than history”!

    • Price is certainly an author I hope to cover in a future blog entry, and thankfully the CALLAN series is now all available on DVD with a complete collector’s set due out shortly – but I must admit I am not familiar with the James Leasor books (apart from the movie of the first love book, WHERE THE SPIES ARE) or James Mayo for instance – there is a really good website devoted to the characters and authors from the spy boom of the 60 – Spy Guys & Gals (http://www.spyguysandgals.com/) which heartily recommend.

  8. Pingback: Top 20 Spy movies | Tipping My Fedora

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  10. Coco says:

    Watching QM – for the Nth time. It’s charming and a little bit mind boggling. I used to read books by the gallon- now less so. But want to try to get hold of this novel. Love your site, btw

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