Those of you who have heard or read me going on at great length about The GREAT Richard Matheson may be surprised to know that for many years, he was but one of my “Twin Titans,” two authors whom I not only greatly admired and tirelessly championed as criminally underappreciated, but also was blessed enough to befriend. The other was Elleston Trevor (1920-1995), famed for his nineteen novels featuring the British spy known only as Quiller, which were written over thirty years under the nom de plume (one of many, as it turned out) of Adam Hall.
I was devastated when Elleston died of cancer, a piece of news that his mother-in-law, of all people, had the unenviable task of reporting to me. I vividly remember standing in the kitchen of the condo where we lived in Danbury at the time, breaking down in tears and near-hysterics when I got the call. Since then, I have kept in sporadic contact with Elleston’s widow, Chaille (pronounced, and alternately spelled, Shelley), who recently sent me a marvelous manuscript that has catapulted me back to the days of our friendship. Borrowing its title from the 1970 World War I novel that he considered his greatest achievement, it is called Bury Him Among Kings: Intimate Glimpses into the Life and Work of Elleston Trevor. May this essay, a somewhat impressionistic response to Chaille’s manuscript (bolstered by consulting my fat correspondence file), and the Quiller page added above serve as my own tribute to Elleston.
A quarter-century later, I can’t recall exactly why I picked up my first Quiller book (which was actually the eleventh), published simply as Quiller in the U.S. and as Northlight—the code-name of that particular mission—in England. I’m 90% sure I spotted it in a rack of paperbacks at a convenience store and simply grabbed it on impulse. It was 1985, the year I graduated from college, and I was most likely looking for adventure (the same spirit in which I attended a showing of Day of the Dead in Times Square that summer, which was an adventure of another kind). I was dimly aware that there had been a movie years earlier called The Quiller Memorandum, which I probably hadn’t yet seen, and since I loved spy stories, I guess I figured that if this guy was still at it, he must know what he was doing. Did he ever.
There’s an element of irony and chance here that I find fascinating. That was, I believe, the first of the series to be published as a paperback original, at least in the U.S., and also marked a departure in the style of their titles. The Quiller name had hitherto been used only on the film and the U.S. edition of the first novel, The Berlin Memorandum. The succeeding books had titles with the same construction (e.g., The Ninth Directive, The Striker Portfolio), and I recall thinking, in my ignorance, that he had stolen the style from Robert Ludlum (e.g., The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend), until I learned that Quiller predated Ludlum’s work. It had been four years since The Peking Target, the longest gap in the series, and I’ve speculated that the new title was an attempt to “rebrand” the books, since each subsequent one started with the word “Quiller.”
The point (you knew there was one, right?) is that if the book had been published as a hardcover instead, it wouldn’t have been sitting on that mass-market rack and I never would have seen or bought it, and you wouldn’t be reading this post today. Adding to the irony is the fact that in publishing circles, at least in those days, paperback originals had something of a stigma attached to them, as books that weren’t “good enough” to be hardcovers. But more on that later. Then came Quiller’s Run and Quiller KGB, and I was absolutely hooked by this spy whose adventures were consistently more entertaining than John le Carre’s, more plausible than Ian Fleming’s, and more comprehensible than Len Deighton’s (although I dearly love all of those in their own right). In the meantime, I ransacked my local library for the earlier books, devoured them all, and settled on The Tango Briefing as my favorite, which it remains to this day.
To be continued.