Guest Commentary

On Jeffrey Simser's
"Quiller and the Secret World"

Penny Fielding


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 parties.


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 genre.

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 spy writing.

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.