Ah, pseudonyms. Adam Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by the author Elleston Trevor (which was itself not the author’s original name). It seems entirely appropriate to me that such an excellent spy novel should come from someone who felt so compelled to shroud and change their own identity. If you like spy stories and intrigue, or would like to try dabbling in them for the very first time, look no further. Quiller is a far better Cold War spy than the cinematic Mr. Bond ever was, more deeply focused on the details of spycraft, practicing intimate information war as a metaphoric knife fight where you’re never truly certain as to who holds the advantage. Drawing blood is rarely the point of the duel, and secrets are more valuable than lives. The Quiller Memorandum, as you might have guessed, is a very exciting book.
Does the title feel achingly familiar? Just like something that you’ve read before? Well…
Perhaps you’ve seen Charles Stross‘ book The Fuller Memorandum. Stross (maybe unconsciously) used a good deal of the pacing and formulation of Trevor’s original, and titled his own book in homage to Trevor’s piece. Stross says that he followed Anthony Price for his composition of The Fuller Memorandum, and that Trevor’s work was distant in his memory at the time of writing, but I haven’t yet read Price’s work to make a comparison. I’ll let you know when I have, and will deliver a full report. Anyway, regardless of whether or not Stross was aware of it at the time, The Fuller Memorandum bears a startling resemblance to the style of The Quiller Memorandum while remaining its own delicious concoction.
But enough of my book comparisons! If you haven’t read the other things that I’m talking about, my words are useless to you. Instead, let me tell you about the wonder of the story itself. The Quiller Memorandum is a fast read, only a little sagging and fatty at the very start as you push your way through the first few pages. Then, as though you were a fish that didn’t realize you had taken the bait, you find yourself dragged along, hook firmly set and inextricably pulling you towards the final climax and conclusion of the piece. And when I say “first few pages,” I mean exactly that. The story had grabbed my interest by something like page ten, and is already compelling by the end of the first chapter.
As I mentioned above, don’t read this book looking for secret spy satellites and nuclear rayguns (no, I don’t know how those would work either, but I’m sure Bond would just blow them up anyway). Instead, read this because you want to follow a thrilling caper through the intricacies of post-war Germany, watching over the shoulder of an excellent spy as he goes about hunting and being hunted by crypto-Nazis who remain in control of elements of the West German government. The combination of everyone’s favorite villains with a game of cat-and-mouse in which you aren’t sure which is which makes for an exceptionally entertaining read.
*VERY MILD SPOILERS*
One of the marvelous things about the book (something that is held in common with the narration of the Laundry Files), is that the whole story is told from the perspective of the main character, dictated to the reader in a careful and measured fashion as it details the inner workings of the narrator’s mind. There are possibilities inherent to this style of narration which I had not fully appreciated at the start of the story: quick bits of byplay and introduction are offered up in passing, and every so often Quiller, our narrator, will tell us that he was wrong in some assessment of his.
But Trevor shows admirable restraint, only ever letting his narrator reveal how he was wrong at the moment when it will be most interesting, most captivating; in one case he even offers a “Chekov’s Hint,” leaving a clue near the very beginning of the book only to pick it up once more at the very end, when it will do the most good. Similarly, there are times when we learn of what will happen even before it occurs, as the narrator reacts to events that he remembers before he completes telling us about them. This is done in the best possible way, creating additional tension and dread without ever spoiling my appetite for more. I really should have seen this coming, since Stross has used a similar approach with some of his Laundry stories. But instead I was happily pulled along, delighted by the fluid progression of the story without being put off by the occasionally caustic narrator.
It’s a good book, and I heartily recommend it.