In Praise of Adam Hall and Quiller

Over time many authors have sung the praises of the Quiller books. I found authors as varied as a spy novelist who writes from a Christian perspective to a writer of Florida based pulp novels. I found quite a few examples of writers expressing their admiration online.

Among them was Shane Black screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and many other films who said – “In the last half-century or so, the mantle of “best spy series” devolves not, in my opinion, to Ian Fleming’s Bond — but rather to the QUILLER books by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor). Sheer narrative intensity. Your hands may as well be nailed to the book.”

Stephen Dobyns a poet and author called them – “extremely well written, fast-paced, and suspenseful.” and saying “I like them as much now as I did 40 years ago”

Greg Rucka, writer of the spy series Queen and Country said – “One of the earliest “bridging” books I ever read, a spy novel that attempted to mix le Carre’s verisimilitude and Fleming’s absurdity and come up with something that was deeper than just the average fluff.”

Finally, writer Jeffrey Westoff wrote “No author has crafted tension on the page as masterfully as Hall. With the Bond books you remember the women, the villains, the locales. With the Quiller books you remember the hand-to-hand melees, the top-speed car chases, the incredible escapes – all written in such excruciating detail you can feel each bead of Quiller’s sweat.”

Some other authors were kind enough to share some additional thoughts with me on the influence Hall’s books had on their work.

Jeremy Duns, journalist and author of the Paul Dark series comments –

Oh, where to begin? I’d read and loved spy fiction before, but the Quillers blew my mind and made me want to write spy novels. Kim Philby once claimed that when he joined MI6 he initially thought he hadn’t, but had been fobbed off with a kind of front, and that the real MI6 remained hidden and inaccessible to him. When I first read the Quiller series, it felt like the whole of spy fiction, and perhaps fiction as a whole, had been a front, and I had somehow given the right passphrase to be let in to the real thing, closed off and unknown to most mortals. I’d never encountered a voice as powerful and vivid as Quiller’s, or read anything as tense before. They’re classics, and should be reissued every five years or so in handsome new editions, just like Greene, Ambler and Fleming are. My novels are deeply indebted to Adam Hall in many ways, but the biggest is that I would never have written them at all if I hadn’t happened across his work.

Jeff Noon is an English novelist and poet who mainly writes speculative fiction. He said –

I bought The Tango Briefing from a local bookshop in my hometown, Ashton-Under-Lyne. I think it had just come out, so it would be 1973. I was sixteen or seventeen years old, studying A level Art. I bought it on pure chance, just going off the brilliant cover. I read it, and loved it, and passed it to my friends. I then read everything else I could find by Adam Hall.

At some point in the ensuing years, I stopped reading him, moving on to other genres. In the intervening years I became an author myself, a writer of science fiction novels. A few years ago I became obsessed with rereading the novels I loved when I was a young man: not famous or even bestselling novels, just the books that meant a lot to me at the time. The Tango Briefing was top of the list, being my favourite of the Quiller books. Of course, the Quiller books are all out of print now. A disgrace by the way! But I bought a second-hand copy and read it.

Two things struck me. Firstly, it was just as good, if not better, than I remembered. And secondly, to my utter surprise, I realised that the Quiller books had been an incredible influence on my own work. I was astonished. I like to think that my style is unique to me, and that there are no obvious influences on the way I write. But here, in this spy novel, was the DNA of my style. My conscious mind had forgotten all about Hall’s writing style, but obviously, over the years, it has risen up in my memory, in secret: it casts a long shadow.

I gave The Tango Briefing to my friend to read, and he said, “Jeff, its like you, writing a spy novel!” And that’s so true. I’ve reread a few of the other Quiller books since, and what strikes me is just how experimental they are, in terms of the language, in terms of the use of jump cuts, and disorientation. In terms of Hall finding new ways of writing to portray fights, drug trips, being tortured, and so on. Incredible works of art! To my mind, Adam Hall is the finest of the British spy writers, better than Le Carré, better than Deighton, and certainly better than any of the present day authors. And Quiller is the perfect existential hero. Most of all, I think, Adam Hall taught me that the moment is everything: embrace and describe each moment completely, find the words, overload the language, take chances, don’t be scared of merging poetry with all-out action and thrills.

Eric Van Lustbader is a novelist of the Nicolas Linnear ninja novels and Testament series as well as being the writer charged with continuing the Jason Bourne novels, he even included a couple nodding to hall in those novels –

Adam Hall was the legend of Elleston Trevor, born Trevor Dudley-Smithj, because all great field agents must have legends — and Hall was among the very greatest.

It is no exaggeration to say that when I started reading “The Quiller Memorandum” I thought I had dropped a tab of acid. Never in my life had I read such hallucinatory prose describing the virtually indescribable life of the field agent.

I was also drawn to him because, like me, he used Eastern philosophy and martial arts: Quiller used kites — a certain edge-of-hand blow. He also slowed his breathing, went into prana, like the best martial artists

It was Hall’s deliciously idiosyncratic prose style that set him apart from all other espionage writers, and drew me like a moth to a flame. Like Hall, I’m a stylist in a genre that usually abhors style. Apart from a number of admired but less well-read authors, blandness and action make up the majority of modern espionage fiction. Hall’s novels were also chock full of small but fascinating tidbits on life. Here’s one, for example: Quiller is listening to two people talking on the other side of a door. He understands, as the voices get louder, that the conversation is nearing its end and the participants are heading his way. Simple things you never really think of.

But the most memorable aspects of his writing, the ones that stuck with me most vividly, were the ones where he set you in the middle of an action scene and never let you go until its end — a disorienting , hallucinatory literary trick that allowed you to fully participate in the action. For those moments you, the reader, became Quiller.

I have been influenced by a number of espionage writers and have drawn from their knowledge and expertise, but it is Adam Hall, Elleston Trever, Trever Dudley-Smith, who holds a special place in my pantheon of writers, and to whom I am most indebted.

Professor Penny Fielding, a spy fiction expert and one of the guiding voices behind Edinburgh Spy Week, is also a fan a Quiller and had this to say

I’ve read all the Quiller novels and had the pleasure of encountering many of them as they were published. They have been my personal favourites even as I’ve read widely in espionage literature across two centuries. But although I teach a course on Fiction and Espionage from 1900 to the present, I don’t include Quiller. There’s something personal about Quiller as a hero and I still think I haven’t got the measure of him.

In some ways Quiller is part of the mid 20th-century exploration of the spy protagonist. Novels in the first half of the century were interested in the gentleman spy or amateur agent drawn into clandestine politics—the heroes of John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene stories, for example The 1960s, as the Cold War entered into popular culture, saw a concentration of professional spies—James Bond, Quiller, and the unnamed narrator of Len Deighton’s trilogy. They all test out the possibilities of being a secret agent—of individual agency in the secret world—and they all depict the solitary agent pitted not only against the opposing secret service but also against the bureaucracy of his (they are nearly all men) own agency. Quiller is a great example of this—a lone agent (a ‘ferret’ as he calls himself), hugely mistrustful of the service he works for and much happier acting alone in the field.

Quiller isn’t the only first-person narrator in espionage fiction, but he’s the most compelling. His presence in the stories is equally fascinating and infuriating! On the one hand he is completely secretive—we know almost nothing about his personal history or even his real name. On the other hand, we get to know him intimately through the first-person narration—variously obsessive, bitchy and sympathetic to people who, like himself, are just doing their job. He’s driven by professional self-respect, but he’s constantly irritated by incidental things. I think that’s why he’s generated a close-knit community on-line of readers who recognise Quiller’s unique qualities.

I like the way a novel can flick from a hyper-technical, focused detail of a physical fight to Quiller’s musings about anything that passes through his mind. In one of the best early novels, The Striker Portfolio, he comments in passing on the psychological implications of a building made of glass: ‘we must shut our faces since we cannot shut our doors.’ Quiller novels can be quite demanding of your attention in their plotting. The start of a new chapter will often be a flashback that makes you wait for the previous chapter’s cliff-hanger to be resolved. There are scenes of pure, minute action where Quiller describes every movement of his body as he fights without a gun. There are some intellectual challenges. There are also chapters of tense conversation, many of them over the radio and one in which Quiller participates in a three-language translation in which he has to pretend not to speak one of the languages.

Quiller is the great existentialist spy. He’s intensely alone in a world that demands his minute attention all of the time. And there’s a kind of poetry about this, for all the technical detail and sometimes the best moments in a Quiller novel can be when he is waiting for something to happen. He’s intensely aware of himself in these situations as he records his reactions. He tries to calibrate every thought and muscle movement. But he also reflects on his surroundings with his impressions spinning out in all sorts of directions.

There’s a whole scene in The Sinkiang Executive where Quiller is waiting for an agent he suspects has been blown. Adam Hall keeps this tense moment going for most of the chapter, just drawing on Quiller’s range of reactions as he waits for the train: “The stars had the glitter of broken icicles and the snow was an ocean, stilled and frozen, capping the curve of the planet and reaching to infinity, making it seem absurd to wait here for a thousand tons of metal to come steaming out of the void with the force of a fallen comet.” Not many thriller authors could do that. And this is a novel which follows up a massively tense and action-filled first chapter with a middle section of Quiller training to fly a Soviet fighter plane in a simulation, and then just talking on the radio for page after page as he penetrates Russian airspace in the real thing. I’m never sure how he gets away with this.

I find Adam Hall’s creation the most fascinating character of 20th-century spy fiction. In one voice, Hall condenses an extraordinarily detailed, yet also intensely fast-moving, perception of the secret world and the skills it takes to service in it. And Quiller is quirky, annoying, funny, preposterously gifted and recognisably down-to-earth all at the same time.

A big thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts on Quiller. Any authors who’ve been influenced by Hall’s writing and would like to add their voice, please drop me a line.

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