Quiller and the Secret World
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[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
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:
"A mission is one thing, but life is another. In a mission you
went in with everything worked out for you and all you had to do was stick
by the instructions and watch out for traps, and by the time you've been
a few years at it you could handle pretty well anything because your mind
turned into a computer, scanning the data and keeping you out of trouble.
But life wasn't circumscribed by the limits of your own experience, and
you could run smack into a land-mine because you couldn't see it:
because it was all written down somewhere that you should do just that."
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.
"For anyone who is tired of life, the thrilling life
of a spy should be the very finest recuperator." -- Sir
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
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"
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:
"What would the Brits do in Cuba?" [Harvey] asked.
...I made it clear to them that I was talking off the record.
I said that we would try and develop whatever assets we had down there--alternative
political leaders, that kind of thing.
"We've done all that," said Harvey impatiently, "but they're all in
Florida. Since the Bay of Pigs we've lost virtually everything
we had inside..."
Harvey began to fish to see if I knew whether we had anything in the
area, in view of the British colonial presence in the Caribbean.
"I doubt it," I told him, "the word in London is steer clear of Cuba.
Six might have something, but you'd have to check with them."
"How would you handle Castro?" asked Angleton.
"We'd isolate him, turn the people against him..."
"Would you hit him?" interrupted Harvey.
I paused to fold my napkin. Waiters glided silently from table
to table. I realized now why Harvey needed to know whether I could
"We'd certainly have the capability," I replied, "but I doubt we would
use it nowadays."
"We're not in it anymore, Bill. We got out a few years ago after
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
2.4 Post Cold War Reality
"It is a shame that the government should still be
embarrassed about dealing with mercenaries..." -- Jeffrey Lee,
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." --
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.