We are alone. We are committed to the tenets of individual combat and there is no help for him who falls. Save a life and we save a man who will later watch us through the cross-hairs and squeeze the trigger if he gets the orders or the chance. It’s no go.
The car burned and the man screamed and I sat watching.
We are not gentlemen.
Welcome to the unforgiving world of Quiller, star of Adam Hall’s long-running spy series.
The Berlin Memorandum, renamed The Quiller Memorandum, was the first of 19 spy adventures published between 1965 and 1996 by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor).
Quiller is some kind of secret agent (we’re not entirely sure what kind, or what organisation pays his wages), ‘a known authority on memory, sleep-mechanism, the personality patterns of suicide, fast-driving techniques and ballistics’. As the book opens, he is persuaded against his better judgement to go after a Nazi revivalist movement named Phönix.
The book follows his desperate attempts to locate Phönix’s Berlin headquarters whilst evading Nazi agents (except when he is allowing himself to be captured and interrogated, which is apparently a good idea).
Quiller narrates the book, very much from inside his own head in a kind of espionage-speak stream of consciousness, full of the sort of tradecraft jargon that makes thrillers seem so real – flushing tags, doubling, red zone, on the hush.
Fifteen stairs, a mezzanine, ten more stairs. This data was filed mentally with the rest: six average paces from the plantain to the gates, gate twelve feet high and locked back with ball-levers, twenty-seven paces from the gates to the curving steps, reasonable shrub cover, two balconies on the face of the building… nineteen paces from the double doors to the staircase… so on.
The story divides roughly equally into interrogations, fights, chases, and hard-man philosophy (sample: ‘A gun is as clumsy as a woman’s handbag’). The interrogations are probably the most interesting part of the narrative, as we follow the ups and downs of his emotional and mental state under various truth serums as well as physical and psychological techniques.
Throughout, we’re reading his mind more than we’re reading the book. Occasionally the narrative gets so staccato that it’s almost like listening to a super-computer in a retro sci-fi film.
The horizon line was unbroken from roof to roof.
In ten minutes I had re-observed. Nil.
Known considerations had ceased.
Eliminate two considerations.
In this book’s favour, it’s tightly written and stylistically interesting, unremitting in terms of action, and has some great set-pieces. However, in the final analysis, Quiller just wasn’t for me. I can never muster much sympathy for these super-efficient super-spies. They’re just too full of themselves.
The Quiller Memorandum
First published in the UK as The Berlin Memorandum, William Collins & Sons, 1965
This edition, Fontana Paperbacks, 1984
Final destination: Charity shop
For bonus points, I am actually writing this post in Berlin.
The Unofficial Quiller Website: This is an espionage novel of a new kind. Adam Hall is a master of chilling psychology, and brings authority to his clinical portrayal of move and counter-move, of flight and murder in the Berlin streets, and of the secret war waged in loneliness between les espions.
Existential Ennui: In his own way, Quiller is as weird a creation as [Richard Stark’s] Parker Obviously there are major differences between the two – Parker is a career criminal; Quiller is a secret agent – but there are also parallels: the single name (we never learn in either case whether “Parker” or “Quiller” is a surname or a pseudonym); the single-minded dedication to a cause to the exclusion of pretty much everything else (romance, home comforts… er, hobbies…); the machine-like nature of each protagonist. Indeed, based on the evidence of The Berlin Memorandum, Quiller is as much an espionage automaton as Parker is a heisting one.
I’m actually very fond of the first few Quiller books — they tailed off a bit later — and especially of this one, which I’ve read several times. To me part of the appeal of it is that, unlike Bond and his clones, Quiller isn’t a “super-efficient super-sp[y]”.
The movie’s okay, but not a patch on the novel.
I remember reading this at an impressionable 13 years of age – having burned through my father’s collection of Ludlum novels – and being a bit in love with it by the end. Never read any of the others, though, as he didn’t have any more and Hall and Quiller kinda drifted from my world. But, oh my, you’ve brought back some memories here, even though I’m sure it’s nowhere near as good as I remember (after this, I went onto Tom Clancy, for pity’s sake, and read a lot of them, so it’s not like I had much in the way of quality control back then).
Tom Wood has written a series of books featuring a hitman called only Victor who, now I think about it, is an updated and less interesting (!) version of Quiiller. They’re probably not too dissimilar in their DNA, and I found it hard to concentrate or care through the second Victor novel I read, so maybe I should consign Quiller to my youth.
But, oh, those memories…
There’s probably a post to be written of series-where-I-loved-the-first-one-but-never-read-any-m0re…
BTW when I was 13 I think I was probably reading Dragonlance books, so I think you’re quite the sophisticate.
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I do like the series but I also know what you mean about the protagonist – he can seem a bit robotic and super detached, no question about it. The best book int he series may well be THE TANGO BRIEFING, if you ever feel like having another go. The 1966 movie version of MEMORANDUM was scripted by Harold Pinter, but most of the best dialogue comes directly from the book in fact.
Thanks Sergio, I remembered you were a fan.
(I’ve just Googled Harold Pinter screenplays – I had no idea he had done so many.)
I first saw the movie with a German student friend who came out of the cinema saying “Why did the German characters ALL have to be Nazis?” but I never caught the short-lived TV series (?).
The second and third books – THE NINTH DIRECTIVE (nicely predating Day of the Jackal) and STRIKER PORTFOLIO – are well worth a look, especially STRIKER – very topical in its day (Cold War, NATO,mysterious aircraft crashes) and which contains a car chase in Germany I always thought ripe for recreation as a “Top Gear” stunt. To my mind, Quiller was the best “anti-Bond” of the spy-fantasy craze of the 1960s – spy-fantasy as opposed to the spy fiction of Le Carre, Deighton, Allbeury et al. I also think there are definite Quiller traits in the much later Jason Bourne movies, Either way, he was a very distinctive character.
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Ooh, I like ‘Spy fantasy’ as a sub-genre – I may use that in future.
Haven’t read this yet, but plan to, and watch the movie. Sounds like it will be an interesting and different read.