Guest Essay

Quiller and the Secret World

Jeff Simser

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.

[Author's Note:  The fictional Quiller often represents grace and honour in the face of Hobbesian chaos.  As the author of this essay, I have tried to emulate Quiller in matters of grace:  I agree with the editor that, following this essay, a number of Quiller scholars, more knowledgable with the series than I, be asked for their commentary.  A unique narrative for a series known for its unique narrative voice.  Finally, British readers should be warned that Spycatcher, the Peter Wright book banned by Thatcher, has been quoted in this essay.]

"How merciless one can be when right is on one's side."  --  Graham Greene

This essay is designed to provoke discussion respecting both Adam Hall's fictional character Quiller and non-fictional espionage.  The scope of the essay is very broad and infinitely more has been left out than included.  The essay will explore a number of questions:  What drives Quiller into the secret world of covert action?  Why does the secret world seem plausible?  Is it?  Why do we the reader want to follow?

We seek to palliate the grinding boredom and toxic level of everyday unhappiness through a number of devices:  reading an Adam Hall novel, having an extra pint at the pub, or conducting an illicit affair.  Those are brief intermissions from our day-to-day lives.  The prospect of a day-to-day existence terrifies Quiller, who fears the world of primly kept gardens and freshly washed autos.  Quiller shuns our palliatives.  He flees, craving the narcotic adrenaline harboured in the treachery of shadows.  He is a spy.

Spying is the second oldest profession, one that has held fascination throughout history.  People still talk enviously of "the life of Reilly", a reference to the erratic Sydney Reilly, employed itinerantly by MI6 in the early part of this century.  During the Cold War, espionage became critical:  the risk of nuclear conflagration demanded shadow boxing and brush wars.   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 (such as the Bay of Pigs, Suez or the drowning of Buster Crabbe in Portsmouth harbour).  As the cold war came to a close, two developments occurred:  the Quiller opus changed; the secret world lost more of its luster.

1.0 A Place of Escape
"The trade of a spy is a very fine one, when the spy is working on his own account.  Is it not in fact enjoying the excitements of a thief, while still retaining the character of an honest citizen?"  --  Honore de Balzac

The fictional Quiller may seek the thrills of a thief, although I would suggest that his civic standing, honest or otherwise, is largely irrelevant to him.  As noted in the introduction, many of us seek at one time or another to escape the tedium of everyday living.  For most the escape is merely transitory and diversionary, the transgressions ethical or moral.  Writing this essay is an honourable diversion.  A brief and illicit affair of the heart, for example, may be considered unethical or immoral by some, but the transgressor is far more likely to find himself (or herself) in divorce court than in the criminals' dock.  A complete escape from the toxic boredom of everyday life is as difficult as it is unpalatable for most of us; civic standing is relevant.  When the routine becomes a bit dull, I am more apt to read a good thriller, see a movie or visit with friends at pub.  Quiller rejects these mere palliatives.  He seeks total escape:  the battlefield in which the options are simple, advance, retreat or perish.

In The Sinkiang Executive (2:24), Quiller tells us:

This passage is typical of the author Adam Hall.  While some things are revealed to the reader, a moment's pause leads the reader to ask a number of questions.  Quiller is telling us that in the danger of the secret world, he controls his destiny, while in the ordinary world his destiny is as predetermined as it is unknowable to him.  This is counter-intuitive.  How can an environment of unspeakable danger be more desirable than the ordinary world in which we reside?   While the point might be more effectively discussed in other forums, or indeed in another essay, I submit that the dangerous secret world is an insular emotional world in which Quiller relies mostly on himself, resenting or rejecting reliance on others, be they his DIF or the Bureau.

2.  Whither?
"For anyone who is tired of life, the thrilling life of a spy should be the very finest recuperator."   --  Sir Baden-Powell

Baden-Powell's boy scouts were unsuccessfully used by MI5 during the First World War.  It appears that the boys got into much too much mischief for the liking of the legendary head of MI5, Vernon Kell.  Historian Christopher Andrew tells us, "His [Cumming's] first two 'master spies' in Bolshevik Russia, Sydney Reilly and Paul Dukes, both prided themselves on their mastery of multifarious disguise" (p. 27).  As the century progressed, so did the sophistication of British spies and their agencies.  During the Second World War, historian Gerhard Weinberg has suggested that British espionage and agent operations were important but did not appear to have been "as extensive as the contemporary imagination supposed." (A World At Arms, p.  544) Following WWII, the Cold War was engaged through the looking glass, but darkly.  This part of the essay will briefly explore the "secret world" before, during and after the Cold War and end with the creation of the Bureau, the secret organization which employs Quiller.

2.1 Before the Cold War:  The Life of Reilly!
"First beginnings are hardest to make and as small and inconspicuous as they are potent in influence, but once they are made, it is easy to add the rest."   --  Aristotle

Sydney Reilly, born Sigmund Rosenblum in Russian Poland in 1874, emigrated to London in the 1890's and by the turn of the century had changed his name and embarked as an international adventurer.  His flair for intelligence work won admiration from both "C", Sir Mansfield Cumming head of the SIS (or MI6), and a young Winston Churchill.  While spying on Bolshevik Russia, Reilly managed to mix an extravagant lifestyle, a bigamous marriage to a beautiful Russian divorcee, and numerous mistresses with a ruthless, even delusional, ability to self promote.  In 1918, the British network in Russia, which included Reilly, collapsed.  Several of Reilly's mistresses were arrested and Reilly barely escaped using a fake passport and a bribed passage on a Dutch freighter to flee the country.  Reilly became messianic in his desire to destroy Bolshevism, advancing shaky schemes and cultivating questionable acquaintances.  At one point, Reilly convinced Churchill to join him in advocating a scheme before Lloyd George, although nothing came of the proposal.   By 1922, the Russian GPU began to plot a counter-intelligence operation designed to neutralize Reilly.  The GPU concocted an anti-Bolshevik front which drew one of Reilly's associates into Russia in 1923 where he was captured and following a show trial, executed.  In 1925, Reilly exhibiting a typical lack of caution, followed his associate into Russia, refusing to believe that the anti-Bolshevik front was a ruse.  Reilly was executed for "crimes" committed.

Adam Hall served in the RAF during the Second World War, although he never suggested a connection to the espionage world (unlike some of his contemporaries, Le Carre for example).  Hall was undoubtedly aware of the espionage legends generated during the war, many of which were exaggerated, even fictional.  Indeed Quiller was originally conceived of as a veteran of WWII covert action (TQM).  During the war, the British were generally believed to have been successful in occupied territories, but to have fared poorly at penetrating Germany.  Incidentally, the German spy network in Britain collapsed with virtually all agents either captured or turned by the British.  In turn, the Soviet network in Britain flourished during WWII, likely discovering the enigma deciphering process and the atomic development of Klaus Fuchs.

Espionage was not the deciding factor in the outcome of the war, but a number of successes (particularly in sigint or signals intelligence) shortened the war and without doubt saved millions of lives.  Sir Harry Hinsley, who worked at Bletchly Park during the war, estimated that Ultra--the product of breaking enemy codes--shortened the European part of the war by not less than two years and possibly four.  Hinsley also noted that while the science of code breaking was critical, human intelligence produced the side assets, captured material and so on, critical to the creation of Ultra.

Take, for example, the side assets produced by Amy Pack, code named Cynthia by MI6.  A review of her legend requires some caution, given that Canadian William Stephenson (A Man Called Intrepid) is a source of the story.  Canadian historian J. L.  Granatstein has suggested that Intrepid's legend is less than reliable.  Nonetheless, the tale of "Cynthia" is interesting.  After being recruited by Intrepid, she penetrated the Vichy French embassy in Washington, seducing the embassy's press attache Charles Brousse.  In 1942, Cynthia convinced Brousse to accompany her for a tryst in the embassy.  After "winking" at the guard, they entered and Cynthia opened an embassy  window allowing an MI6 agent to enter, crack the safe, remove the ciphers for photography and then return the ciphers to the safe.  At one point during the mission, hearing a guard's footfalls, Cynthia quickly stripped out of her clothes and allowed the guard's flashlight beam to catch her naked body.  As they left the embassy, Cynthia lowered her eyes demurely as they passed the guard.  Stevenson was to later claim that the ciphers informed GCHQ's ability to break Vichy codes and assisted the allies in their invasion of North Africa.   Cynthia eventually married Brousse and settled with him in France following the war.

2.2 The Cold War and Covert Action
"The foundation of the Soviet Imperium is terror and its inseparable, gnawing offshoot - fear."  --  Ryszard Kapuscinski

The best known covert action of the cold war, the Bay of Pigs, was only one of many CIA actions.  Covert action is an effort to influence the course of events in a foreign country without the source of the influence being known.  For example there have been attempts to overthrow foreign leaders (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, the Dominican Republic 1963, Indonesia 1965, Greece 1967, and Cambodia, 1970).   As a policy choice, covert action gives a government a lever that lies between the normal diplomatic devices (closed door chats, economic sanctions, etc.) and armed intervention.  The Americans have discovered, however, that covert action can have long-term and deleterious consequences.

The impact of the Bay of Pigs is very much alive today.  An internal CIA investigation conducted in April of 1961 runs 150 pages long and is not worthy of recounting in this short paper.  Essentially the CIA  "invaded" Cuba hoping to unseat Castro through the use of Cuban exiles.  The failure of the mission has done more than anything else to uphold the Castro regime, particularly in the difficult period following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Visitors to Havana and environs today are constantly reminded of the "heroic tale" - a tiny nation repelling the forces of the most powerful nation in the world.  In my view, the failure of the Bay of Pigs has also locked America into a very irrational foreign policy respecting Cuba:  wait for Castro to die.  The Cuban-American community, particularly in South Florida, work hard to ensure that there can be no rapprochement.  In contrast, Canada, Mexico and the EU have tried to engage Cuba both economically and politically (in a meeting in Havana, the Canadian Prime Minister recently demanded the release of a number of political prisoners).

In his book Spycatcher, Peter Wright related an interesting conversation that he held with American counterparts (Bill Harvey and James Angleton) shortly after the Bay of Pigs:

 2.3   The Bureau and the Garden of Eden
"If rules are incompatible with happiness... what are they good for?"  -- James White

Suez is a reference to an MI6 plan developed during the Suez crisis of 1956.  Sir Anthony Eden was Prime Minister for 21 months after Churchill stepped down in April 1955.  This was, for the secret service, a "madcap" period.  My theory, supported at least tenuously by Adam Hall's The Striker Portfolio, is that the Bureau Quiller worked for would have been created at the end of this period.  Peter Wright's view is that the British government got out of some of the madcap covert actions; historian Christopher Andrew holds to a similar view, although his understanding of preceding events is slightly different.

The Suez disaster Wright referred to consisted of a plan, approved by Eden, to assassinate Nassar through the use of nerve gas.  The plan was rescinded when the French and Israelis agreed to joint military action.  The military action failed.  According to Christopher Andrew, that was the end of the matter.  According to Peter Wright, the assassination plan was resurrected.  Two critical flaws led to disaster.  First, Nassar had time to assert control and round up most British assets.  Second, the new action, using renegade Egyptian officers, relied on a weapons cache outside of Cairo; those weapons were fatally defective.  In the words of Peter Wright, the plan was badly flawed and "...the chances of its remaining undeniable were even slimmer than they had been with Buster Crabbe" (p. 198).

In April of 1956 the Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin paid a visit to England aboard the battleship Orzhonikidze, which moored in Portsmouth harbour.  According to Wright, MI6's London station, under the command of Nicholas Elliot, wanted to measure the size of the  Orzhonikidze's propeller (or the hull according to Andrew).  Apparently the Admiralty could not reconcile the ship's actual speed with Naval intelligence's estimate; they needed to know what made the ship run so fast.  They choose Commander Crabbe, an overaged, overweight veteran of the Second World War.  He commenced his mission and promptly disappeared; Crabbe's headless body washed ashore a few days later.  MI6 tried to put "smoke" out:  Crabbe had registered in a local hotel under his own name; CID were used to sanitize the register.  However, it was not enough.  Khrushchev complained publicly about the "frogman", forcing Eden to make a statement before the House of Commons.

Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew attributes the Crabbe problem to the "C" of the day, Sinbad Sinclair and to Eden's propensity to bolster fading British prestige and capability with covert action.  At the end of the Crabbe affair, Sinclair was fired and replaced by MI5 leader Sir Dick White.  In Peter Wright's view, this was a grave error damaging both MI5 and MI6.  In Andrew's view, while all did not go smoothly, there were no more plots to kill foreign leaders and no more Buster Crabbe adventures.

2.4   Post Cold War Reality
"It is a shame that the government should still be embarrassed about dealing with mercenaries..."  --  Jeffrey Lee, Times Editorial

A scandal unfolding at the time of writing (May, 1998) in London may be indicative of the future of covert action.  Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is under pressure in the Parliament as a result of dealings with an English company, Sandline International.  Sandline is run by retired Lt.  Col. Tim Spicer and offers "PMC" services.  PMCs, or private military companies, are the mercenaries of the 1990's, offering small elite troops for hire.  Sandline contracted to lead a team into Papua New Guinea to put down an uprising on the Island of Bougainville for twenty-two million pounds.  The operation was a disaster, with Sandline's troops being held hostage.  Sandline's latest foray was into Sierra Leone to work with EcoMog, a Nigerian backed group, replacing a coup d'etat leader with the previously elected leader.  The Times editorial, quoted above, submitted that this was an effective and efficient way of conducting foreign policy.  The scandal enmeshing the Foreign Secretary revolves around the export permits granted to Sandline.  Sandline sent arms to EcoMog through Bulgaria in support of their armed action.  Unfortunately, the United Nations prohibits the export of arms to Sierra Leone for any reason and the Foreign Secretary, much to the astonishment of the Times, is concerned about associating his government with mercenaries.

3.0   Conclusions:  Quiller and Covert Action
"Since weapons have a negative value, the intelligent man will have nothing to do with them if he can."   --  Lao Tzu

Quiller occupies a vaulted place in the Bureau's echelon of agents.  He is, when we first meet him in the mid-1960's, an experienced agent.  In the preceding section, I proposed that 1955-56 was a critical period for the Bureau:  could it have been created then?  The Americans have demonstrated an unrelenting appetite for covert action in all corners of the world, pursuing plausible deniability to the point where Iran-Contra was being run out the White House basement by one (not-so-clever) man.  What about the British?  Two things are important contextually:  their secret service was battered by an overabundance of moles and Britain was clearly in decline as the empire crumbled.  Could the Bureau have existed?  Perhaps, although not to the extent of Hall's (and our) literary imaginations.  More critically, is the Bureau plausible?

Our spy is the rough and tumble player on the squad.  Diplomats murmur obsequious platitudes and soldiers fight according to the rules of engagement.  Spies play rough, play the thief, play in name of God and country.  Our "lad" may be a mean sod, but the other side surely has someone more treacherous and they will use "him".  We need our spy to at least keep the game even.  If the other side can ignore the rules of engagement or diplomacy, so should ours.

At the beginning of this essay, I posited that we needed escape from the toxicity of everyday life.  One of the "toxic" elements are the strictures imposed by the necessity of living in close proximity to others, the rules of the road.  Spies eschew those barriers and constraints.  Why do people want to follow Quiller, want to believe that he is or can be real?  I'm both incapable and unwilling to speak for others (although I invite the Quiller scholars to address this question after the essay).

Why do I follow Quiller?  For slightly different reasons than suggested in the thesis of my essay.  Yes, Quiller flaunts the rules.  In the first half of the opus, he also flaunts relationships with other people and rejects true intimacies.  Emotionally he remains independent.  In so doing, Quiller escapes, nay flees, day-to-day living.  There is some element of romance there.  I want, if only for a short time, to suspend disbelief and follow Quiller into the breach.  Quiller is not a "Rambo", a poster boy for those who suggest that the State should be torn down to minimal elements.  Quiller flaunts the rules and mocks the bureaucrats, but he obeys the major commandments:  if stealing or destroying private property is the easiest way out of a dilemma, Quiller stops to ponder London's stickiness and usually chooses a tougher course of action.  In fleeing he recognizes the need to return.  He sends a rose for Moira.  There are anchors that pull Quiller between our world and the secret world.  The tension between the desire for flight and the need for anchors give Quiller a human and compelling quality.