Guest Commentary

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

Mike Neumann

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Jeffrey Simser's essay approaches the secret world of Quiller as escapism, for both the reader of Adam Hall's novels and for the character of Quiller himself, adding a brief, thumbnail outline of espionage in the 20th century to introduce a peripheral but not unrelated question:  how believable is the secret world inhabited by Quiller?

I:   "All right, I'm ten-tenths reptile, is that what you mean?" (Quiller, from The Sinkiang Executive)

The idea that espionage fiction can be a worthwhile distraction shouldn't come as any surprise, although Hall's books provide something more than just a "palliative" from "grinding boredom" (offering, among other virtues, invaluable stylistic pointers to the aspiring creative writer).  Quiller's own escapist motivation for becoming a spy is more complicated, but no less familiar to fans.  His target-attraction to what he calls "The Brink" is well documented throughout the series, evolving from an early view of himself as being "in this game for kicks and with nothing to lose" (TTB, chapter 3), through the more refined "I'm in this trade to prove myself.  I'm frightened of pushing things to the point where they might blow up, so I push things to the point where they might blow up, to prove I'm not frightened." (TKM, chapter 6), to his devastating response to the suggestion by Ferris that he quit a more than usually dangerous mission and go home:  "This is home." (TPT, chapter 13)

I should add that the above progression isn't entirely sequential, and readers looking for perhaps the fullest explanation of Quiller's "total escape" mentality (quoting Mr. Simser) need look no further than chapter 2 of TWD, in which Quiller counsels rookie spy Merrick on some of the unspoken tenets of his trade.  It's a long passage (maybe the longest unbroken monologue ever spoken by Q), but worth repeating because it validates the Simser thesis even better than his quote from TSE:

"What they don't tell you is that once you're in this game you're on your own.  You don't do what you do for the sake of your country or for peace, though you can kid yourself.  You do it to scratch an itch, that's all.  I'm not talking about the ones who do it for the money--they're just whores.  Most of us do it because we don't get a kick out of watching the telly and pushing a pen and washing the Mini on Sunday mornings; we want to get outside of all that, be on our own so we can work off our scabby neuroses without getting arrested for it.  We want to scratch that itch till it bleeds."

II:  "The greatest tribute you can pay to a secret agent is to take him for a  moron." (Len Deighton's anonymous spy, from Funeral in Berlin)

The question of Quiller's plausibility is more difficult to answer, particularly for those of us (a majority, one hopes) with no actual experience in the espionage trade.  Between the lines of the Simser essay is the suggestion that all spy fiction is, to some degree, escapist entertainment, including even the more realistic novels of LeCarre, Deighton, McCarry, and certainly Adam Hall (up to a point, defined below).

"Realistic" in this context doesn't, of course, equal "real," and even the more literate examples of fictional espionage have to answer the demands of commerce:  plot conflict, crisis, and resolution; pacing; character; setting and atmosphere; and so forth--all the elements necessary to maintain a reader's attention and, hopefully, boost sales into the bestseller bracket.  But the cloak-and-dagger cliches of the genre aren't all that different, whether the spy in question is a debonair, casino-hopping playboy or a burnt out agent stalking the cobblestones of Middle Europe (hands thrust deep into trenchcoat), or (more to the point) an enigmatic, often ruthless "bitten-eared ferret" with a chip on his shoulder and a fashionable scar on his soul.  Certain conventions can be expected, one of which is that the lone-wolf anti-hero will always be at odds with his superiors, in an ultra-clandestine government organization sanctioned to perform the jobs deemed too dangerous--or dirty--for the more "diplomatic" spy agencies (MI6, for example).

Quiller and the Bureau fit comfortably in this tradition, although Adam Hall manages to navigate the elusive tertium quid between literate espionage drama and pure spy fantasy better than most writers.  Throughout the series, Hall downplays the "life of Reilly" glamour of the trade, as in this lesson from (again) TWD, part of the same soliloquy quoted above:  "Values are different out there; let a man show friendship for you and you've got to deny him, mistrust him, suspect him, and nine times out of ten you'll be wrong, but it's the tenth time that'll save you from a dirty death in a cheap hotel because you'd opened the door to a man you thought was a friend."  And yet at the same time Hall is able to offset that grim reality with a battery of (undeniably exciting) action adventure props:  car chases, cliffhanger endings, token sex scenes, and so forth.

The balance is successfully maintained through at least the first six or seven books of the series, after which the level of plausibility begins to suffer under the burden of too many overt spy fantasy frills:  Armageddon scenarios, superman heroics, and so forth.  (This point of departure occurs, by no coincidence, at more or less the same time that the character of Quiller was forced to stop aging or else retire.)  Think about the climax to Quiller Solitaire, with Q attempting to divert a nerve gas laden jumbo jet bound for Washington DC, and then recall the more convincing (and thus more compelling) treatment of an airplane/nerve gas plot in the earlier TTB.  Or compare the representative car chases from TSP and TWD to the later one in Quiller KGB.  The emphasis in the autobahn scene from TSP is on the logistics and the mechanics of the cars involved, and the pursuit over the ice in TWD reaches, at one point, a very credible top speed of 50 kph (just over 30 mph!).  In comparison, the more cinematically inspired QKGB chase (missing only the necessary music cues) finds our plucky spy whipped around East Berlin at over 60 miles per hour, clinging to the roof of his adversary's car!

III:  "Ninety percent of the time it's a foolish, joking sort of life." (agent Paul Christopher, in Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn)

No one is insisting that Adam Hall should have reached for near-documentary candor (which would, at any rate, defeat the whole purpose of escapist entertainment).  A guilty pleasure, is, after all, no less a pleasure, and I'm sure Hall's books are read with the tacit understanding that any actual "espion" looking for the same adrenaline kick sought by Quiller is likely to be disappointed.  The reality of espionage is, we realize, far more tedious and mundane than its fictional doppelganger, a fact acknowledged by the better spy writers and underlined, in the Quiller books, by Adam Hall's portrayal of the Bureau itself, usually described (on a cosmetic level) in the least flattering and therefore most believable light possible.  In the fictional pantheon of spy agencies the Bureau, with its peeling paintwork, cracked linoleum, and defunct elevator, exists somewhere between Len Deighton's more clearly satirical W.O.O.C. (P) and LeCarre's shadowy "Circus."

But the ultimate plausibility of the Bureau (and, by extension, of Quiller himself) is less a reflection of its place in the history outlined by Mr. Simser, and more a result of Hall's typically understated prose, which leaves critical details of the Bureau and its employees to the imagination of the reader, who is then obliged, as always, to hunt down the elusive clues between each page.  Looking beyond Quiller's familiar love/hate attitude toward what he calls "the Sacred Bull," very little is revealed of the origins and actual bureaucracy of the Bureau, although the agency evolved considerably over the series. Indeed, in TQM (written, remember, without a subsequent series in mind) the Bureau is explicitly not a Cold War intelligence agency at all.  "The Bureau's purpose . . . was to safeguard human life on a larger scale against the risks of a resurgence of Nazi militarism and its war potential." (chapter 14)  Of course such a narrow charter wouldn't be enough to sustain an entire series of books.  Therefore Hall wisely allowed the threat of a Fourth Reich to pass into less sensitive hands (Ludlum, et al.), and in his next Quiller adventure extended the range of what Q generically refers to as "Bureau stuff:  intelligence breakdown, communications, liaison, so forth." (T9D, chapter 1)

Ironically (or maybe not), the more Hall revealed about the Bureau, the less believable it became.  Beginning with TKM (again, number seven in the series) the scope of the organization (and of its operations) is increasingly global and public.  In TKM the Bureau has agents-in-place in every hemisphere, from Rome to Cambodia to "downtown Hollywood," and is able to request direct support for Quiller from the US Navy and the White House. In TSE the Slingshot mission is inaugurated in full liaison with the USAF, the RAF, NATO, and the German BfV ("all four parties were contributing to the mission" [chapter 4]), and mention is even made of the Bureau occasionally hosting "deep screened" visitors in its grimy corridors.

Students of the later series will already know that this trend would continue, on an even greater scale, in subsequent books, and in direct proportion to their degree of plausibility.  "We'd lost five men during my time at the Bureau," says Quiller in 1964 (TQM chapter 2), a rate of attrition entirely consonant with a small, "unofficial" agency running maybe a dozen, at most, shadow executives in the field (reading, again, between the lines).  How the expanded mega-Bureau of the later books was able to maintain its super-secret status is a nagging mystery, although it's interesting to note how the Bureau signals room, well into the computerized 1980's, continued to use good ol' fashioned, low tech chalkboards to indicate mission status!

Jeffrey Simser's conclusion that an actual Bureau (and thus a real Quiller) likely couldn't have existed "to the extent of Hall's (and our) literary imagination" is probably correct.  But his evidence also supports a parallel notion.  The post-war British secret service, he writes, "was battered by an overabundance of moles and Britain was clearly in decline as the Empire crumbled."  Could it therefore be possible that British writers of spy fiction, widely acknowledged to be the masters of the genre, were engaged in a little rose-tinted escapism of their own?  Was the same optimistic and indomitable spirit that saw London through the Blitz carried over, as fiction, into the post-war world of government scandal and treachery?

Literary/cultural critic Paul Fussell prefaces his book Wartime:  Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War with the following observation:  "For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty."  The same thought could, with a little stretching, be applied to the subsequent Cold War as well, with writers like Adam Hall fashioning heroic exploits of spies like Quiller as an antidote to the almost unthinkable reality of post-Hiroshima Cold War politics.

IV:  "No excuses, this is the trade we're in and this is the way we ply it." (Quiller, from Northlight)

But in the final analysis the question of plausibility for any novel can only be answered by the reader, and is dependent on individual taste, expectations, and the degree of willingness to suspend the necessary disbelief.  Quiller gets himself into some unlikely, hair-raising predicaments over the course of the series, much more than can be considered entirely believable.  But it's a measure of Adam Hall's skill as a writer that the issue is, for the most part, rendered moot.  His protagonist is unique enough, and has such a distinctive voice, that any reservations about the ultimate plausibility of the series have to be balanced against the often contradictory and therefore credible dimensions to which the character of Quiller has been modeled.

This reader's answer:  Quiller is real, even when his adventures are not.