Guest Essay

Penny Fielding

Guest essayists welcome questions or discussion either on the Quiller Mailing list or by mailing [].  Essayists will moderate discussion by forwarding messages to interested parties.

Rick asked me to write this piece after I had remarked that Quiller KGB [QKGB], Quiller/Northlight [Q/N] and Quiller's Run [QR] had much in common, and my subsequent thinking was focused by Tim Stevens's remark on the list that The Kobra Manifesto [TKM] is a typically 70s novel.  Rick has invited essays from Quillerians' "specialist areas", and my thoughts about these three novels assume that "popular" fiction will play around with the ideologies current at any given time.  And the more interesting the novel, the more ambivalent its interaction with ideology is likely to be.  These are all complex and interesting texts (Q/N is my personal favourite in the Q-orpus) so I can't do much more in a short essay like this than sketch out some ideas. 

It's easy to rush to conclusions and I'm aware that my copies of these books are physically similar.  The UK editions were not well served by W. H. Allen's then paperback imprint, Star Books (poor production values and lousy editing if the inaccurate German in QKGB is anything to go by).  Of course, in many ways they seem strikingly different:  Q/N is an almost existentialist tale of extremity, QKGB a more "classic" novel of Cold War Berlin, while QR dabbles in mysticism and the power of suggestion on the unconscious. What binds them together in another way is this very diversity: in all these texts Hall is trying out his hero in new situations which break away from the almost playful recruitment techniques used to set up his earlier (and later) missions. 

Q as a hero is often bewildered, uncertain or deceived. For a man who informs us at every opportunity how much he likes to work alone, his autonomy is severely challenged.  In Q/N and QR he has no idea of his real function in the mission and in QKGB he is obliged to work with Yasolev.  In the 70s novels Q prides himself on the specificity of his missions and the singularity of the objective (Tango Victor, Tewson, Kobra).  He's a ferret who doesn't look beyond the warren.  But in the 80s novels he is much more subject to political manoeuvrings beyond his control.  In QKGB he admits: "I didn't think this was going to be my kind of thing, too political, too distinguished, not the job for a ferret", yet he takes on the mission anyway. 

We also find that Q's own agency (and an agent is what he's supposed to be) in the missions is diminished.  In the dénouement of Q/N he is substantially assisted by Liz Benedixsen and the fortuitous appearance of the Norwegian navy--the mission literally drifts towards a successful conclusion.  The one "decisive" act he commits, the killing of the final agent from the Rinker surveillance team, is curiously (and wonderfully) anticlimactic:  Hall resists the temptation to go for one of his bravura set-piece fights and instead has Q fell the opposition with the least dramatic of blows. In QR he is thrown by the psychological pressure exerted by Shoda and in QKGB he and Cone keep calling on the KGB to do their dirty work for them.  

In these novels he is also deflected from one of his most sacred principles: in QR he catches himself out looking round for a weapon, and in QKGB he actually holds a handgun on Pollock.  In QKGB Q is not only working with a foreign power, he is also driven by the very visceral or libidinal forces that he normally suppresses or contains.  The novel is shot through with a strange sado-masochism (just as well Ferris wasn't directing in the field!)  Q is obsessed with torture, and at one point comments on how erotic he finds burning his lips on hot tea!  He also entirely misses the point of Lena Pabst's sublimation of desire into politics when he offers to join her in a spot of S and M:

        Q: "I don't take punishment.  But I could give it"
        Pabst: "I'm more complicated [...] than that".

That's telling him!

Espionage fiction is all about knowledge: whoever has the most, also has the most power. But of course the really interesting thing, in the tangle of information and disinformation, is that knowledge itself is problematised.  This often distinguishes spy fiction from the detective story, which generally has a more structured epistemological trajectory: an act has been committed and the detective will discover what caused it.   Espionage fiction tends to inhabit a world of much greater uncertainty and suspicion; you don’t know who to trust and what is real, and there is no reassuring figure of the detective to help you through the maze.  At points in these novels Q occupies a double position: he is at once the person who acquires knowledge and the person who is duped.  Q/N  brilliantly points up the deceptive nature of  “intelligence”: on the one hand, Q gets invited round to 10 Downing Street for a little after-dinner geopolitical crisis management (and whisky) but on the other, he doesn't know that he is being set up on his own back doorstep. One of the most powerful scenes in Q/N is that in which Q, unable to know whom to trust, completely loses it in the phone-box and sinks into the "dark water" of paranoia until reminded by Ferris that this is perfectly normal (a wonderful touch, incidentally, in a novel about the Cold War).

A second observation about links between these novels concerns the proliferation of different women in these novels.  Sexuality becomes a way of exploring other issues to do with power, gender, politics, the psyche.  In earlier missions this is crude indeed (TKM's Shadia is explicitly phallic and this figure makes a reappearance in QSol), but in the 80s novels female power is a more complex affair.  Hall goes out of his way to give Cat Baxter a degree in political science, Liz Benedixsen manages to keep her KGB status hidden from Q.  Q/R in particular is notable simply for the number of women involved, from the completely powerless Chu-Chu to the (almost!) completely powerful Shoda, taking in the competent Katie McCorkadale, and the courageous Sayako who has her own agenda.  Unlike in other novels, where he is often found trying to persuade women to give up kicking ass and take up dancing, Q expects women to use violence.  In his response to the abused woman in the clinic who has killed her husband it's as if Q is expressing his understanding of Shoda's position.

So much for what these novels are like, but now I'd like to attempt some ways of considering why they're like this.  Even though Elleston Trevor was resident in Arizona when he wrote them, I think these books deal with British and European issues and I have chosen two ways of linking them with the decade in which they were written.  

First, the 1980s witnessed some transitions in the way the secret services were conceived in civil life.  Employees of GCHQ at Cheltenham protested against the ban on their unionisation; Clive Ponting (who blew the whistle on the Belgrano sinking) was acquitted by a jury against the judge's recommendation; the  Spycatcher affair revealed the shabby history of British internal security.  British security was in any case seen as being answerable to America, rather than a force in itself, and a lively protest movement arose against the presence of US military bases on British soil.  And of course, later on in the decade, whole European secret services were dismantled (or appeared to be so) after the fall of the Berlin wall.  I think these things may be related not so much to the events of the novels as to their structures as I tried to outline above--Q's disorientation, and his problems with his employers, resonate with uncertainties throughout the 80s about the role of the secret services.   Despite the surface conservatism of Hall's political thinking he finds it difficult to create a hero who will unequivocally embody conservative ideology--to the great advantage of the reader. 

Secondly, the interactions of sexuality, gender and power have a particular relevance when you consider that the only "real life" British politician mentioned in the Q-orpus is Margaret Thatcher.  For all the straightforwardness of her political beliefs, Thatcher was sometimes difficult to place because she was a woman, a gender which, in patriarchal thinking, is often explained in terms of sexuality.  Thus her admirers were always pointing out how "flirtatious" she was, how she would use "feminine wiles" to get her own way, while her detractors, including those on the feminist left, would often accuse of betraying any female identity.

Q/N gives us Q's sexualising of the unnamed British Prime Minister standing for Thatcher, then the most powerful woman in the West, as he casts admiring glances at her "elegant step" and "slim hand" (I always have to pretend this isn't happening!)  Interestingly, this latter is the same detail used to describe Shoda in QR, who has a "delicate, fine-boned hand" and is the most powerful woman in the Q-orpus.  And like the historical Thatcher, Shoda is both de-feminised (when Chen first sees her he thinks she's a man) and sexualised in Q's imagination: "I'd expected her to be sheathed in silk, sinuous, feline, (remember in QSol he says he always thinks of cats as female) seducing me into the shades of Lethe with the kiss of her bright blade".  I don't want to draw any exact parallels between Shoda and Thatcher (in fact I think Shoda, an ambiguous and complex character, is far more interesting the erstwhile PM) but I've gone in to detail here to illustrate my general point, which is simply that the 80s novels foreground issues of women and power in a period when this was also an issue in British political thought.  Compared with the simplistic analysis of Shadia in TKM, these novels are admirably sophisticated.  

I don't mean to imply that these characteristics define the novels in any fixed way, or that they cannot be found elsewhere in the Q-orpus, but I do think they reveal the subtlety and complexities of  Adam Hall,  whom I can never read too often.

Created by Rick Holt (Iron Mouth)  E-mail:
Copyright (c) 1997
Disclaimer:  all opinions not expressly attributed to other contributors are solely my own.