On Jeffrey Simser's
"Quiller and the Secret World"
Guest commentators welcome questions or
discussion either on the Quiller
Mailing List or by mailing [Penny.Fielding@ed.ac.uk].
Commentators will moderate discussion by forwarding messages to interested
Jeff Simser's highly-informed and stimulating essay reveals much about
the changes in the world of espionage. Many of these were new to
me and all have significantly added to my interest in Adam Hall's work.
Jeff has asked that others apply his findings to the Q-orpus, but the skilful
way in which he presents his own narrative of the history of spying already
goes far in answering one of his own questions about the relationship between
history and fiction. When Jeff tells us about the exploits of Sydney
Reilly, or the recent reporting of the Sandline affair, these events read
pretty much like the plot of a spy thriller, as if they have already been
absorbed into that liminal space between what we consider to be history
and what we consider to be fiction. In many other cases the interface
between the fictional and "real" spy worlds is a blurred one, not least
because, in a profession whose very nature is secrecy, we can never be
sure quite where history begins and fiction ends.
To address all the fascinating details that Jeff has uncovered would
take much more space than is available to me here, so I thought I would
take a more general approach and offer a discussion of how espionage fiction
offers us ways of understanding history. In order to tie this in
with just some of the wealth of material Jeff has given us, I'd like to
focus specifically on the way the Q-orpus responds to the end of the cold
war. First, though, let me make a few preliminary observations about
Quiller and history.
On the one hand, there is the sense, well summed-up by Jeff, that "the
dangerous secret world is an insular emotional world" which we can tap
into as an escape from lives which we may perceive as routine and boring.
Yet on the other hand, we read these novels because we can recognise in
them the ways in which we perceive a historical world outside Quiller's
reactions--a fact which is the occasion of Jeff's essay. That is
to say, on the one hand the spy world seems quite other to our own experiences,
whilst on the other we recognise that it does prove readable to us because
of the ways in which "real" history is presented to us as narratives gleaned
from our reading of spy histories. Another way of looking at this
relationship between spy history and spy fiction would be to say that rather
than reflecting historical events, spy thrillers act as ways of
coping with the uncertainties of history itself, which, if thought of as
a pure abstraction would tax the limits of our mental capacity.
There are many ways of discussing how "history" comes about, but one
useful one is the way economic factors shape our understanding of the world.
Itís sometimes said that the spy thriller arose as a popular genre in response
to a growing awareness that the twentieth century, particularly after the
wars, is marked by global capitalism. Under such conditions (of which
we are currently very much aware after the destabilisation of certain Asian
economies) people may experience a sense of alienation and loss of individual
power. The spy as hero can be a way of vicariously reinstating that
autonomy: the protagonist is typically competent and confident within
his (such characters are usually male) capabilities and well able to deal
with the world as an individual. These are men whose extraordinary
professional competencies are perfectly attuned to their immediate surroundings,
so that engagement with wider social issues is deflected. These novels
are often obsessed with specific professional details and specialisms,
the most famous of which is perhaps Fredrick Forsyth's three pages of technical
detail about the assassin's rifle in The Day Of The Jackal (a motif
taken up with greater subtlety by Hall in The Ninth Directive).
One of the pleasures of reading such texts is to become caught up in a
world which works on its own terms, in which individual action can be carefully
plotted and accomplished, and through which history can be controlled
and comprehended and thereby made less threatening.
In one sense, Quiller is the archetypal individualistic spy hero, coping
with the impersonal world of the Bureau by means of his own actions.
If we understand "history" in a general sense--the general flow of past
and current events as we are able to experience it--then it emerges as
something of which Quiller is very wary. He has no personal history,
endlessly repeating the same moments of crisis at the perpetual age of
about 42. And he is right to be wary! The characters who do
bear personal histories (nearly always women) are afflicted by alcoholism,
unhappy marriages, oppressive fathers, children dying in infancy, parents
eaten by sharks. How much more frightening is that wider manifestation
of time--history (in fact Quiller draws together the concepts of personal
experience and history in Quiller Barracuda when he describes Kim
Harvester as "a human being with a history"). Time for Quiller is
rendered down to the stark essentials of the clock ticking as he must complete
his mission, memorably enacted in Northlight when his time for shaking
off the Rinker cell runs out. In fact, Quiller's main territory is
not time at all but space: the precise distance of a gun from the
body, the need to master the empty space that surrounds him on the window
ledge in Quiller KGB, the specific number of moves it takes to swing
down a fire escape in The Sinkiang Executive.
In the earlier Quiller novels the attention is always focused on Quiller
himself. Even when matters of great global import are at stake, as
in Northlight, the novels play on the great gap of knowledge between
our lone ferret and those struggling for control of world events (Quiller,
like his readers, has to depend on newspaper reports for updates.)
Jeff makes the important distinction between two fields of the secret
world: intelligence gathering and covert action. I think that in
the best of the Q-orpus these two activities are elided so that Quiller's
consciousness of his own action mirrors the reader's accumulation of knowledge.
But Jeff goes on to make this point:
"While espionage, generally regarded as the art of collecting closed
source information from human intelligence, remained a foreign policy mainstay;
covert action (e.g., the plot line of virtually all Quiller novels) fell
into disrepute after an embarrassing series of events.... As the
cold war came to a close, two developments occurred: the Quiller
opus changed; the secret world lost more of its luster."
Let me unravel some of the ideas involved here. I agree with
Jeff's feelings about the change wrought on the Q-orpus by the end of the
cold war and believe that this change is brought about by the way in which
the cold war itself offered Hall ways of representing Quiller's reactions.
Specifically, I mean the correlation between his consciousness of his actions
and his apprehension of history in the world of espionage.
To pick up on a phrase of Jeff's, I think the Q-orpus loses the lustre
of metaphor--the link between Quiller's immediate experiences and ways
of configuring, or coping with, history. Hall is left with two strategies:
first, a recourse to earlier spy narratives, and second an attempt to configure
history directly, without the mediation of metaphor. These two have
a causal connection: the cold war as metaphor for the apprehension
of history supplied Hall with a fictional narrative structure. When
this was no longer available, he turned both to "direct" representations
of history, and to narrative models supplied by other texts within the
The title of Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold hints
at the potential for cold war symbolism, and the cold war had provided
Hall with metaphorical material for what, in my opinion, are two of his
most brilliant novels, The Sinkiang Executive and Northlight.
Both these texts exploit the idea of secrecy and uncertainty to extraordinary
effect: the metaphors of silence (as detailed by Rick Holt in a "Thought"
elsewhere on this edition of the QSP) in Sinkiang, and of deceptive
light conditions in Northlight; the evocation of paranoia; the sense
of a decentered Europe with sinister events played out at its very edges
(the White Sea peninsula and the Asian border). Both novels exploit
the literal cold of their settings to call up ideas of both personal and
political theories of knowledge (or lack of it). These are two novels
which seem to me to enact the distinctive epistemologies of the cold-war
espionage thriller: the concept that whatever the agent knows locally
(and here I refer to all Quiller's special competencies), he or she cannot
know the full picture.
It's significant that the endings of both these novels score "very
low" in Rick Holt's extremely useful conclusivity chart in his "Thought"
for 05/17. The political agency of the cold war was in part that
it was there instead of conclusivity. Not only was it believed to
stave off the terminal effects of a nuclear "hot war," but it also perpetuated
the exchange of knowledge in a continuous sequence. With its proliferation
of double and triple agents, cold war espionage could seemingly endlessly
recycle knowledge without any side garnering an overview of the whole.
As Jeff puts it: "During the Cold War, espionage became critical:
the risk of nuclear conflagration demanded shadow boxing and brush wars."
The Q-orpus, with its famously abrupt endings requiring Quiller to start
all over again on a new mission, perfectly captures this process.
In the post-cold war novels Hall seems to me to have lost a distinctive
quality that enabled him to sculpt some of his finest novels out of ideas
surrounding the cold war. This has two results: first the politics-as-metaphor
mode gives way to an uncertain presentation of "real" political events
from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the emergence of the Russian mafiya,
and secondly Hall seems to become more reliant on pre-existent models of
Quiller KGB, written the year before the fall of the Berlin
Wall (a fact that points to the impossibility of establishing causality
in the relationship between history and fiction) seems anxious about the
politics it foregrounds. KGB reveals a deep and interesting
uncertainty about what politics is. Quiller himself betrays a knee-jerk
sensibility about domestic matters ("snivelling socialists") and Hall insists
on demarcating most of the other characters with a political affiliation:
the hypnotist is, as Q puts it, a "leftist", Lena Pabst a Trotskyite revolutionary
idealist, Cat Baxter has a degree in political science. Yet the text
does not seem to know what to do with this information. Cat Baxter's
degree is not reflected in her dialogue. Pabst's political ideas
and their fate have been well summed up on the Quiller
Mailing List by Taras Stasiuk who argues that her political manifesto
"starts off beautifully, with a well-presented viewpoint which is all the
more interesting since it is an excellent case for The Other Side, then
there is a quick flash of fanaticism, until finally the speech is ruined
by the old violence-as-aphrodisiac cliche." The novel repeatedly
gets itself into dead-ends of this kind. Subsequently Quiller takes
on a much more direct and confrontational role in world affairs, trying
to repeat his earlier success with the Berlin Wall in post-Tiananmen China
Quiller Bamboo and, stoked with his personal disgust, taking on
the residual might of the Khmer Rouge in Quiller Salamander.
The uniqueness and power of the Quiller model, distinguished by its
wonderful textual subtlety and complex, suggestive prose seems to me to
weaken under the weight of the more clumsy representational tasks Hall
sets it and he has to turn to external support. Quiller Solitaire,
though a fine novel in many respects, uses a plot line familiar from many
contemporary "action adventure" thrillers and it is not surprising that
this is the Hall novel chosen by Hollywood for development as a movie.
Quiller Barracuda seems to me to look back to a much older tradition
of spy writing and in fact can almost seem parodic of it. The concept
of technical expertise which I discussed earlier is taken to a point of
self-conscious absurdity in Quiller's description of his actions on the
boat. Quiller slows down the account of his turn that allows him
to pivot into a strike against the opposition to an extreme form of Hall's
trade-mark slow motion action sequences, and then comments to the reader:
"I am not, however, forgetting you, my good friend, as you wait agog to
perform this totally spectacular turn, or so my totally inexcusable degree
of self-indulgence allows me to believe." This tongue-in-cheek quality
is perhaps a way of avoiding Hall's earlier self-appointed task of drawing
the reader into Quiller's actions and using them as a way of mediating
a complex and dangerous world.
Taking an even broader view, the plot of Barracuda, in which
it is said of the villains that "these men plan to buy America," harks
back to the old fears of global capitalism that I mentioned earlier.
More than any other Quiller novel, the plot foregrounds economics and the
internal threats to an economic empire. As Jeff observes, "Britain
was clearly in decline as the empire crumbled," and Hall turns his attention
to the major economic power in the world: the United States (I refer
here to Jeff's analysis of American history). America as imperialist
nation invaded from without by a conspiratorial group of powerful foreigners
and from within by a decadent and corrupting criminal class (the drug barons)
recalls a common motif of earlier British spy fiction. The names
of the conspirators are gloriously redolent of those international gangs
found in the novels of John Buchan (see, for example, The Power House):
"Takao Sakamoto, Simitis, de Lafoix, Lord Joplyn, Abraham Levinski, Stylus
von Brinkerhoff" not forgetting the sinister but shadowy "Madame St Raphael"!
In particular the mind-control plot element is one used by Buchan in The
Three Hostages (and there is actually a slight verbal echo here:
Barracuda's Dr. Greenspan recalls Three Hostages' Dr. Greenslade).
Mike Neumann has pointed out in a post to the Quiller
Mailing List how the betrayal of Quiller in Northlight is endlessly
brought up in subsequent novels. Not only that incident, but the
whole plot--with a nod to that excellent earlier thriller The Scorpion
Signal (for oats read scotch)--is reprised in Barracuda:
"The product. The poor bastard had pushed it right into the end
phase and he'd got the product and he'd been running like hell for the
coast on board a plane or in a Hertz or buried under a sack of oats in
a truck and someone had blown him or he'd left traces behind and now he
was holed up in a telephone box with blood in his shoes and the fear of
God in his soul and ringing London, tugging on the life line to see if
it was still there, still strong enough to get him home alive while--"
Perhaps that "lifeline" is Quiller's own connection to his earlier
narratives which, faced with the impossible challenges of a post cold war
world, become his own history.
Finally, I'd like to thank Jeff for the excellent presentation of his
material. I'm conscious of how dismally I've failed to refer to most
of the historical details he supplies, but it was the commentary in between
them that got me thinking, and this is what I've tried to respond to.