Elleston Trevor:
Life and Work

The Guardian, July 25, 1995

John Ezard  

Elleston Trevor, whose output as a writer ranged back from The Quiller Memorandum, written under the pseudonym Adam Hall, to The Flight of The Phoenix to the Hugo Bishop detective novels of the 1950s, has died of cancer aged 75.  Five years ago, he said:  "I've created my own timelessness.  I haven't got old so far.  I can do things now I couldn't do at 30.  My mind teems with ideas.  When I finally drop dead at the typewriter I shall leave 15 bulging envelopes of them--which will be a fortune to any writer who can't think of plots."  His unwritten plotlines would have given most authors an abundant career.

Trevor was not only one of the great professional storytellers of the postwar generation but the most sustained and long-lasting of them all.  His Quiller novels alone were as valid a counterpoint to the James Bond genre as Len Deighton's Harry Palmer books, as high in quality and almost as bestselling.  He also produced one of the most vivid and haunted of all first world war stories, Bury Him Among Kings.

After Ian Fleming he was probably the most consistently high-selling spy writer.  By many he was seen as the best after Le Carre.  He began writing before Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean, and thrived long after them.  Yet he was little known publicly--thanks to his deep reticence.  Also he changed publishers often--and spent his money on extensive travels, then actually settled abroad.

He was in flight from an England which gave him an abominable home and public school childhood.  He must have been Sevenoaks School's bitterest and most devastatingly critical old boy.  Overseas also suited him.  As the years went by in his small but superbly appointed writer's villa outside Phoenix, Arizona, he remained a lithe, physically and mentally active man who looked nearly half his age and could do the most demanding of yoga exercises.  Late in life he took up the cause of battered women, campaigned vigorously for that, and was generous with money.  The only clue to his innate fear of frailty--he had watched his first wife die painfully--was the way his second wife Chaille would reach unobtrusively for his hand when his voice faltered at dinner parties.

Trevor recalled his nanny telling him as a toddler in the 1920s that thunder reminded her of the sound of first world war guns heard in England.  Yet the 15th of his Quiller hardbacks, Bamboo (1992) was set up-to-date in Hong Kong and Tibet in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.

Virtually the only interview he ever gave was to the Guardian in 1992, when he disclosed that, though his home had been respectably stockbroker Tudor, his parents were actually alcoholic.  "I was born in Bromley.  My parents loved me very much and disliked each other very much, so I had a miserable childhood.  They never got on for my entire life so I was always waiting for something to blow up.  I went to prep school and public school, where I got beaten soundly every Monday morning for bad Latin.  I had no refuge, you see.  And I think this must have inspired me to write because I used to disappear into empty water butts around the house, where I couldn't be found.  I'd curl up with some trashy kid's book just to be out of the way.

"There was nowhere for me to go.  If I went to school there was trouble there, if I went home there was trouble there.  So who knows, it may not be simplistic to say that all my life I have been inventing stories in which I can live.  My father was an extrovert stockbroker who womanised.  He drank at all the clubs and smashed all his cars up.  He was a noisy drunk.  My mother was more secret, being a woman, it was much more shaming for a woman to be like that.  She simply did it because, poor soul, she didn't know how to cope with life otherwise.  Looking back I could be heartbroken for both of them both.  At the time I just wished they'd stop.

"They say that if you're loved as a child you're going to be OK, you'll be fairly stable.  I suppose I am but you can have a lot go wrong in your life if you're the child of alcoholics.  At school--whatever was happening at home--I would go shivering into prayers knowing that my name would be read out to report to the Junior Common Room.  It was at that age like being asked to report to Auschwitz.  You reported there and stood in a line of similarly shivering boys hearing the thwacks going on inside.  Six strokes, usually from the headmaster.  It was pure sadism, ignorance."

I asked him during the interview if he was afraid of going back to school.  Oh no, he replied with a chuckle "because they're not going to beat me this time.  I'd kill them.  I haven't put it behind me, or I've brushed a lot under the rug or I've re-expressed a lot through Quiller.  I have what they call pervasive anxiety.  I was reared in anxiety."

He left school unqualified, worked briefly as an apprentice racing engineer and began writing as a wartime ground engineer with the RAF.  "I slipped into writing like warm water.  It's a dire necessity for me.  I've got to tell stories.  It scintillates and shimmers in front of me, the whole idea of telling stories."

There were rich pickings after the war for obsessive story tellers with a popular touch.  Trevor's debut, A Chorus of Echoes (1950), was an immediate book of the month choice.  The Big Pick Up was the first of his stories to be filmed.  "I'd never been a soldier, never been to Dunkirk and it became the definitive novel of Dunkirk."  A subsequent novel, based on the 1950s news story of the Flying Enterprise salvage, relied for its maritime background on a three shilling (15p) manual called A Beginner's Guide to the Sea.  Three reviewers compared Trevor's feel for the sea with Conrad's.  The Hugo Bishop gentleman detective series went down big on the BBC.

When Trevor was 27 he married the children's writer Jonquil Burgess and found his first personal contentment.  He wrote more than 80 books.

The Flight Of The Phoenix was one of several to be filmed, with James Stewart and Peter Finch.  But his most durable work, alongside Bury Him Among Kings, was the Quiller series about the dirty, sweaty, terrified, non-commissioned officer side of espionage, drawing on the insecurities  of his childhood.

He and Johnnie had a son, Peregrine, who is an artist.  Johnnie died of brain cancer in 1986.  He made a close second marriage to Chaille Groom, a painter.  Her name was pronounced Shelley and when phoning friends he used to announce them jointly as "Shelleston."

-- John Ezard

Bob Tanner, Elleston Trevor's former publisher, adds:  I find it difficult to believe Elleston Trevor will no longer be there.  He was "Quiller."  But it was Elleston's excellent adventure novels which were translated into many foreign languages that established him as an international writer.  He finished a new novel shortly before he died.

Elleston Trevor, author, born February 17, 1920; died July 21, 1995.

Copyright, 1995, by The Guardian.  All rights reserved.