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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
Pabst: "I'm more complicated [...] than
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
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: email@example.com
Copyright (c) 1997
Disclaimer: all opinions not expressly attributed
to other contributors are solely my own.