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Literature: Quiller

Quiller is the first-person protagonist of a series of espionage novels by English-born author Elleston Trevor, writing under the pen name of Adam Hall. He is a shadow executive (secret agent) for the Bureau, a 'deniable' British intelligence agency reporting directly to the Prime Minister.

In 1966, one of the books, The Berlin Memorandum, was filmed under the title The Quiller Memorandum. George Segal starred as Quiller, and the cast also included Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow, Senta Berger and George Sanders. The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter.

The books include the following tropes:

  • All a Part of the Job: Quiller makes clear that he (and by extension the other shadow executives) do their job because they need the excitement. He presents it as a not very sane defect. He's all for helping humanity and his country and doing the right thing, but if Quiller goes too long between assignments he starts to hang around the office waiting (begging) for something and finds himself agreeing to take assignments that he would have otherwise turned down.
  • The Chessmaster: London Control gets Quiller to volunteer for missions he'd normally refuse by making them appear to be something different.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Quiller is on the receiving end on several occasions.
  • Cold War
  • Comic-Book Time: Quiller repeatedly says he's "getting old" in the first novel, written in 1965. His last mission is in "Quiller Balalaika", written in 1996 — as Quiller was an agent during the Second World War this would put him in his seventies.
  • Cunning Linguist: Quiller language skills range from Polish ("It's like stuffing your tongue in a jar of used razor blades.") to Cantonese.
  • Cyanide Pill: Quiller refuses to carry one because he’s Suffix 9 (Reliable Under Torture). He changes his mind in the later novels after he's been tortured a few times.
  • Deus Ex Nukina: "The Tango Briefing"
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Quiller always refuses a handgun — they give him away as a spy, they cause overconfidence, and they're noisy. He has used sniper rifles in a couple of books, but only when there's been no other way to kill a target. All other times Quiller relies on his martial arts skills.
  • Driven to Suicide: Shown as a rather disturbing Noodle Incident involving shadow executives who crack up under the strain.
  • Enemy Mine: "Quiller KGB"
  • First-Person Smartass
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: Played straight in The Peking Target. Quiller has been captured by the Soviets, who force him to make a radio transmission giving a false report to his base. Unknown to the Soviet Big Bad, his translator is on Quiller's side. So the Big Bad tells what he wants Quiller to say in Russian, the translator tells Quiller what the actual Soviet plan is in English, and Quiller must then transmit that information to his base in a manner that still sounds plausible (if the false information contains the words Seoul or Peking, for instance, the Big Bad would be suspicious if he didn't hear those words). Unsurprisingly this chapter is entitled “Minefield”.
  • Get Into Jail Free: In his final novel, Quiller discovers a witness who has evidence that can bring down a high-ranking boss of The Mafiya has been thrown into The Gulag. He gets himself sent there too (though only by faking the conviction papers) even through no-one has ever escaped before.
  • The Ghost: Moira, an unseen actress lover of Quiller. Various Girl of the Week types are shown, but she is the only one Quiller leaves a bequest to in his will (“roses for Moira”).
  • Government Agency of Fiction / Cloak & Dagger: The Bureau
  • The Handler: Each shadow executive has a director-in-the-field who organises safehouses, communication, transport, identity papers, liaison with government officials — in short, anything the agent needs for the mission. They have a right to refuse to work with a particular director, given that trust between the two is so important. Quiller's preferred director is Ferris, even though he's slightly creepy (he's rumored to strangle mice).
    • A brief passage in one book sizes up two other directors, Loman ("brilliant but desperate for personal kudos, talk you into a suicide bid if it'll get him a medal, it wasn't his fault I'd come out of Tunis alive") and Thornton ("totally dependable, pull you out of the gates of hell if he can get there in time, but short on Rusk-think patterns and mission sense....").
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: Quiller "listening for clicks" whenever he picks up the phone, even though the technology involved in phone tapping is a bit more sophisticated than that, even back in The Sixties.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Played straight in "The Quiller Memorandum", as those following Quiller are trying to pressure him into making a mistake — and "Quiller's Run", where he's being boxed in until a hitman catches up with him.
  • I Work Alone: Quiller refuses to work with other shadow executives or "shields" (bodyguards) because he doesn't want to let his guard down by depending on someone else.
  • Just Between You and Me: Subverted in “The Berlin Memorandum” as the Big Bad’s plan is bogus — he’s hoping Quiller will contact his headquarters in an attempt to stop it, giving away its location.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: A short forward in one of the novels says that they are 'fictionalised' stories of an actual agent, who will be called "Quiller" to protect his identity.
  • Mad Lib Thriller Title: "The Warsaw Briefing", "The Scorpion Signal" etc. This changed with "Northlight", after which every novel was titled "Quiller (name)".
  • Mysterious Past: The only thing we know about Quiller's past is that he's Conveniently an Orphan and his schooldays were not pleasant.
  • Noodle Incident: Offhand references are made to missions Quiller has taken part in, but which are not covered in the novels.
  • No Such Agency: The Bureau, an organization directly responsible to the Prime Minister of Britain, with "powers that would be called into question in the House of Commons should its existence be revealed".
  • Not My Driver: Happens in "Quiller's Run". Even though he escapes, Quiller is furious that he walked into so obvious a trap.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Quiller is not allowed to steal or damage private property during the course of a mission, and he's always griping about how his expenses are scrutinised minutely.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: Lampshaded in Quiller's Run, when he asks why a paramilitary team isn't sent to take down a powerful Arms Dealer.
  • Overt Operative: Averted. "Quiller" is just a Code Name, and he always uses a cover name on a mission, which is used even in messages to Mission Control.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: Averted. In "Quiller's Run", Quiller resigns after his own people try to blow him up during the course of a mission (all Bureau operatives are regarded as expendable). Rather than trying to force him to return, the Bureau simply give him a mission under the disguise of a private contract.
  • Russian Roulette: In Quiller Balalaika a Russian Mafiya boss forces Quiller to play this game (after he's already witnessed one of his mooks get killed this way) with one bullet and six spins of the chamber. The boss is stunned when Quiller actually survives.
  • Spy Fiction: Of the Stale Beer kind.
  • Spy Speak: Speechcode.
  • The Spymaster: Croder, Chief of Signals.
  • Underside Ride: Quiller is advised not to do this when escaping from The Gulag, as the last person who tried froze to death. In an earlier book, he tries to follow someone by ducking into the wheel well of their passenger aircraft, passes out from lack of oxygen and wakes up just in time to stop himself falling to his death as the undercarriage is lowered.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played straight — Bureau agents are never told what the mission is about, the idea being that the agent should not get distracted by any larger political implications.

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alternative title(s): Quiller
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