Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Berlin Memorandum (Quiller #1) by Adam Hall: a Review of the First Edition (Collins, 1965)

Time, I think, for another series of author-centric posts, in the grand tradition of such former, lauded (er, by somebody, somewhere... probably) series of author-centric posts as this one on Patricia Highsmith and this one on Anthony Price. And this time it's the turn of a spy fiction author who excites great interest and fervent devotion in certain sections of the espionage-fic fratenity; a man who wrote well over a hundred novels in his lifetime, under a variety of pen names – one of which would eventually become his legal name – and in a variety of genres: Elleston Trevor.

The Trevor nom de plume I'm concerned with is Adam Hall, under which moniker Trevor wrote nineteen first-person novels starring British secret agent Quiller, published from 1965 to 1996. I've only read the first one thus far, but it was so strange and fascinating and gripping that I'm planning on making my way through the entire series. There's plenty of info and commentary on Trevor/Hall's oeuvre online, so rather than proffer my ill-informed thoughts on his life and career, I'll instead direct you to this comprehensive website, which contains everything from articles on and interviews with Trevor to details about each of the books; this interview with Trevor's son, JP, by friend of Existential Ennui and author of the Paul Dark spy novels Jeremy Duns (Hall is Jeremy's favourite author; it was Jeremy that turned me on to him); and this dedicated page and this series of posts on Matthew Bradley's website.

Quiller's first appearance came in this novel:

The Berlin Memorandum, published in hardback in the UK by Collins in 1965 (prices – with dustjacket – on this first edition range from six or seven quid to over £50, depending on condition; I bought this one from secondhand bookshop Camilla's in Eastbourne on my birthday day out all the way back in March) – although it was actually the second novel Trevor wrote under the Hall alias, following 1963's non-Quiller debut The Volcanoes of San Domingo. Operating in Cold War Berlin on the orders of shadowy British outfit the Bureau, in turn liaising with the Z Commission, Quiller's ongoing mission is to bring to justice those Nazi war criminals who have thus far escaped prosecution, and who continue to operate at all levels in German society. But when a fellow agent is killed, Quiller is tasked by the Bureau to hunt down former SS Obergruppenführer Heinrich Zossen, a man who Quiller saw at his ruthless worst during the war. Before long Quiller finds himself up against underground Nazi organisation Phönix, in the process uncovering a plan that could have devastating consequences for Europe and the wider world.

In his own way, Quiller is as weird a creation as another of my abiding preoccupations-cum-obsessions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark's Parker. Obviously there are major differences between the two – Parker is a career criminal; Quiller is a secret agent – but there are also parallels: the single name (we never learn in either case whether "Parker" or "Quiller" is a surname or a pseudonym); the single-minded dedication to a cause to the exclusion of pretty much everything else (romance, home comforts... er, hobbies...); the machine-like nature of each protagonist. Indeed, based on the evidence of The Berlin Memorandum, Quiller is as much an espionage automaton as Parker is a heisting one.

Quiller's narrative style – and therefore Hall's prose – is curiously elliptical and staccato in nature. Quiller frequently deploys shorthand phrases – trademarks, really – for a number of situations: for danger ("red sector"); for an intractable problem or blocked avenue ("no go"). Often he'll close out a statement abruptly with a curt "So forth". His narration is thick with espionage nomenclature and terminology: "flushing tags" (getting rid of a tail); "cover" (agents deployed to watch one's back). He also has a tendency to lapse into bizarre almost bullet-point summaries of his position as he reasons out situations and explores options.

This being an espionage thriller, there are the expected double- and triple-crosses, and there's also a memorable interrogation sequence, with Quiller battling the effects of a truth serum, hallucinating badly but desperately trying to hold on to reality. Interestingly, Quiller doesn't carry a pistol, believing guns to be more of a hindrance than a help; he even informs us that a gun is merely "a penis-substitute and a symbol of power". Take that, 007, licensed to kill. He continues:

The age range of toy-shop clientele begins at about six or seven, rises sharply just before puberty and declines soon after the discovery of the phallus and its promise of power. From then on, guns are for kids and for the effete freaks and misfits who must seek psycho-orgasmic relief by shooting pheasants.

And take that, the landed gentry. Consequently, Quiller often has to think his way out of a jam rather than fight his way out. Perhaps the most ingenious example of this comes when, having failed to extract the information he needs from Quiller, Nazi interrogator Oktober turns instead to Inga, the damaged young woman with whom Quiller has become involved. With Inga being tortured and raped in the next room in order to force Quiller to talk, Quiller comes up with quite a creative solution: he faints, thus making the torture redundant.

That's just one remarkable passage from a novel that's stuffed with similarly noteworthy scenes and events. It's an impressive first outing for Quiller, although if the opinions of Messrs Duns, Bradley et al are anything to go by, there's even better to come. But in the next post in this series, instead of looking at a subsequent Quiller adventure, I'll once again be examining The Berlin Memorandum – except under a different title. Because as it turned out, the 1965 Collins edition was the only time the novel was destined to appear under the title of The Berlin Memorandum – at least in English (there have been a handful of foreign language editions, one of which – a 1967 Spanish paperback – you can see above on the left). Thereafter, it would assume a perhaps more familiar moniker...


  1. I had a Quiller paperback on my shelf for the longest time and just could not get myself started on it. It had a gorgeous cover too. Something wasn't grabbing me in the first few pages. Your post makes me think I need to try again. That quote about guns was particularly excellent. So contemptuous!

  2. Which Quiller is it, Olman? Based on the evidence of the first one, I'd definitely give it another go if I were you.

  3. Thanks so much for the kind references, Nick, and I envy you the pleasure of starting down the Quiller road. In addition to the dedicated page you mentioned, my blog also contains a multi-part post (starting here: http://bradleyonfilm.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/the-other-titan-part-i/) that offers my personal recollections of Elleston, while the wonderful Quiller site also has an interview I conducted with him not long before his death. And, if you're looking for a real curiosity, their page on QUILLER BARRACUDA even includes the press release I wrote for the first U.S. edition! Will be interested in your take on my favorite Quiller novel, THE TANGO BRIEFING.

  4. My pleasure, Matthew. I hadn't come across your additional Trevor series, so I've updated the post now with a link to the first of those. Splendid stuff!