100 Megaton Kill

100 Megaton Kill

After the rather subdued, cerebral novel of my previous review, I was in the mood for some good old pulpy spy-adventure fiction, and I found just the ticket on my bookshelf: 100 Megaton Kill, by Ralph Hayes. Published in 1975, it’s the first in a series of six novels about “Check Force”: an unlikely pair of spies who team up to take down a sinister global cabal.

That this was not going to be a highly realistic novel of shadow warfare was made clear at the outset, when a bad guy, having nearly killed a secretary who surprised him while he was burgling some documents after-hours, decides that the expedient thing to do is to feed her body into a paper shredder. It’s apparently a very heavy-duty paper shredder, though he acts surprised when there’s a lot of blood and he has a little trouble with the job. And when he’s confronted a few minutes later by a co-worker, instead of killing him so there’s no witnesses, he plays it cool and claims he just saw two strangers leave the office, then proceeds to throw paper shreds over the human hamburger, wipe off his fingerprints and pretend like nothing happened. This is the kind of zany stuff that makes men’s adventure fiction from that era so much fun!

The spared witness turns out to be Alexander Chane, an ace agent and crack shooter who was already thinking about leaving the Agency due to its corrupt and war-mongering ways. When Chane’s boss tries to frame Chane for the gruesome office killing, and Chane learns that the boss is connected to a mysterious conspiracy called “Force III” that involves Russian missile bases, Chane goes on the run from the Agency until he can sort everything out. Meanwhile, a top Russian agent named Vladimir Karlov has defected from the KGB for similar reasons as Chane as is hiding out in the British embassy in Paris.

The globe-trotting action is fast and furious from here on out. Karlov is attacked in Paris, Chane in New York, and both flee to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to hide out. Realizing that they have no allies and a common enemy in Force III, the two join forces to defeat the cabal. More assassins show up, more information about the conspiracy is uncovered, and Chane even finds time for meaningless sex with two horny hotties, because it’s 1975 and it’s a men’s adventure novel, so why the hell not? The action then shifts to Russia, where the dynamic duo have to infiltrate a missile base to stop a Force III agent from launching a devastating thermonuclear ICBM attack on New York City. This was easily the highlight of the book; the way Karlov infiltrates the base and the dramatic scene at the missile silo was tense, exciting and almost believable.

We also go inside a few meetings of Force III, who, like any self-respecting evil cabal, has a massive secret complex from which they’re plotting world domination. Their base is underground in the Argentinian outback, where they’re working to unleash nuclear terror on the USA and trigger World War III. Their leader is a nasty Nazi-like character named General Streicher, whose junta has recently taken over Argentina. The Brazilian President, the Chilean Defense minister, a Greek shipping magnate and a very rich Arab are also involved. While this all sounds very cartoonish, it may have been inspired by a real conspiracy called Operation Condor that was going on in South America at the time. The novel’s climax takes place at this complex, and the ending strongly suggests that Force III is not defeated, but like SPECTRE will return to haunt the world and our protagonists again soon.

100 Megaton Kill reminds me of a Robert Ludlum story stripped down to its essentials and told in 200 pages instead of 600. In particular, it brings to mind Ludlum’s 1979 novel The Matarese Circle, with its idea of an American and a Russian intelligence officer teaming up against a third global force that is sabotaging both sides and trying to provoke world war; it also has (pre-)echoes of The Bourne Identity and The Aquitaine Progression. While I rather doubt that Ludlum read this novel, for me it shows that he was really just a puffed-up pulp/men’s adventure novelist who somehow became a mega best-seller.

Anyway, this was a fun, quick read. It’s not going to win any literary awards, but if you like Nick Carter/Mack Bolan style men’s adventures and aren’t overly concerned with realism, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this one. It’s also apparently a collectible, judging by the price in excess of $50 on the used market (I lucked out and got it as part of a large lot at a buck a book). And note the cover, a masterpiece of 1970s men’s adventure pulp–I’ll be damned if the villain isn’t a dead ringer for Laurence Olivier/Szell from Marathon Man.

Get a copy of 100 Megaton Kill here.

Circus

Circus

Alistair  MacLean is one of the greats of old-school adventure fiction and one of the best-selling authors of all time. Though most of his novels involve shadow operations of some kind, I’ve found them a bit less compelling than those of his fellow great, Jack Higgins, and haven’t read too many. I recently picked up MacLean’s 1975 novel, Circus, which combines a “mission impossible”-style op with Cold War espionage, and gave it a quick read.

The story’s protagonist is Bruno Wildermann, a superstar trapeze performer, tightrope walker and mentalist. Bruno is an immigrant to America from an undisclosed eastern European communist country where members of his family were killed by the regime. Not only can he perform seemingly superhuman feats of balance and agility on the high-wire, but he has a photographic memory. This makes him the perfect candidate for a daring CIA operation: to penetrate a top-secret laboratory in Bruno’s homeland where a scientist is developing a devastating anti-matter weapon, take “mental photographs” of the technical documents contained therein and then destroy them.

The first part of the novel sets up the operation, as we’re introduced to Bruno, some of his talented circus mates–including the strongman Kan Dahn, the knife-thrower Manuelo and the lasso-master Roebuck–and his CIA handlers, which includes the beautiful Maria, whose role is apparently to look pretty, admire Bruno and occasionally get hysterical. A couple of murders early on let us know that treacherous parties have infiltrated the circus and are on the scent of the CIA plot.

Things start to get interesting around 100 pages in, as Bruno is finally let in on the details of the mission he is being asked to undertake. He’s to infiltrate the Lubylan laboratory and prison facility where the scientist works and lives. There’s a power line stretching from a power station 300 yards away to the top of the Lubylan building, which Bruno is to walk across without getting fried by the 2000 volts of electricity. If he manages that, he then needs to get into the building without getting shot by guards or eaten by killer Doberman Pinscher guard dogs. His challenge is nicely illustrated in a two-page schematic at the beginning of the book:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: walk across a 2000 volt power line 9 stories up…”

As the circus sails across the Atlantic and rolls toward the target country the intrigue ramps up: spies are killed, sleeping compartments are bugged, shady characters are seen tailing Bruno and his mates, and a nasty secret police chief named Colonel Sergius learns of Bruno’s scheme and schemes to take him down. Meanwhile, Maria’s cover as Bruno’s love interest begins to get all too real–a corny romantic sub-plot that I could have done without.

Finally they get to the destination, where Bruno, who has more skills than you would expect of a trapeze artist, pulls off an absurd deception to fool Sergius and throw him off his trail. Then Bruno and his three circus mates undertake the audacious heist, each using his particular skills to climb, walk, rope, knife and muscle their way into the building. This was definitely the novel’s highlight, though the realism was a bit lacking; Bruno and his crew subdue the guards and get inside too easily to make it a really tense scene.

But all of this is just a setup for what MacLean really excels at: not Shadow Op believability, but plot twists, treachery and shock endings. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say that there are traitors close to Bruno, surprise guests in the Lubylan building, and Bruno’s operation and he himself are not as they appear to be. It’s all a bit too much, like a murder mystery where you’re not entirely clued in and everything ends too tidily to be believable. My other criticism is that MacLean doesn’t bother giving his characters different voices and personalities; they all speak like cynical Oxford-educated Englishmen, including the Eastern European immigrant Bruno and the American CIA men.

It’s too bad, because MacLean had a clever “Mission Impossible” story idea here, the execution was just a bit lacking. This is probably why I haven’t read many of his novels and prefer Jack Higgins, though I understand that MacLean’s best work came years earlier. It wasn’t a bad novel, just very old-school and not as good as it could have been. Get a copy of Circus here.

The XYY Man

The XYY Man

Cat burglary and espionage are two of my favorite categories of Shadow op; any story that combines them in a believable way is going to go on my to-read list.

The XYY Man, published in 1970 by Kenneth Royce, is such a story. It’s the first of a series of eight novels about William “Spider” Scott, a skilled “creeper” (cat burglar) and occasional British government operative. The novel was adapted as a 3-part British TV series pilot in 1976 and returned for 10 more episodes in 1977.

The story starts slowly as we’re introduced to the protagonist, a second-story man who has just been released from his third stay in prison and is determined to go straight. We also meet his devoted girlfriend Maggie and his square cop brother Dick, whose influence is the only thing keeping Spider from going back to his old life of crime. Meanwhile, a nasty copper named Bulman with a personal grudge is harassing Spider, accusing him of another burglary and preventing his brother from advancing in the force.

Things look bleak for Spider when a man named Fairfax approaches him out of the blue and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Bulman will be called off, Dick will be given a promotion, and Spider will receive 15000 pounds to set himself up with a legitimate business and a new life with Maggie. All Spider has to do is steal some documents from a safe in the Chinese Legation in London–which turns out to be the most secure, unfriendly building Spider has ever seen. And if he’s caught, his sponsors will deny all involvement and Spider will have to face the music like a common criminal.

Spider initially refuses, considering it a mission impossible and not wanting to spend his best remaining years in a tough prison, or six feet under if the Chinese get him. But after casing the building carefully, the sheer challenge of it gets his juices flowing and he decides to give it a go. It’s the same old story we see time and time again with Shadow-oppers: the safe, square, daytime life just can’t compete with the buzz of breaking the law, living on the edge and operating in the shadows.

The story kicks into gear as Spider goes ahead with the op, breaking into the Legation building from an adjoining rooftop, creeping past alarms and into the safe room. But things go sideways when he discovers the shocking information the documents contain, and the next thing we know Spider is a fugitive–from British intelligence, the police, the Chinese, Maggie, Dick and soon, the CIA and the KGB. Spider has to evade them all and figure out what to do when you have nowhere to go and you’re the most wanted man in London, if not the world. In other words, it’s a Shadow operator’s worst nightmare, but a shadow-fiction reader’s dream scenario.

I liked the first-person, real-time perspective this novel gives you of the creeper Scott as he tries to complete his mission, evade his pursuers and extricate himself from an epic international clusterf*k on the streets of London. We get an up-close look at some of the tricks of his trade, the quick wits required and the intensity of being a most-wanted fugitive on the run. There were some twists at the end that I found a little confusing and the story wrapped up a bit too quickly, but otherwise it was a gripping story.

My only other criticism is that the writing was a bit awkward and difficult to follow at times, particularly for an American reading in 2021. It reminded me of an early Jack Higgins novel, with its unpolished style and street-level view of British Shadow operatives of a bygone era. But the plot was compelling, the action exciting but never over the top, and the main character Spider the kind of protagonist the shadow-fiction fan has to root for. I enjoyed The XXY Man and will be reviewing other installments of the Spider Scott series in the near future. Recommended for fans of old-school crime, spy and adventure fiction.

Flashpoint

Flashpoint

Flashpoint is yet another obscure thriller from the 1970s remembered only because it was made into a film–a 1984 adaptation starring Kris Kristoffersen which, I vaguely recall, was quite good.

This novel is intriguing in the way it connects two fronts of the Shadow War that are usually distinct: the Border War and the Assassin War. The protagonists, Logan and Ernie, are two good ol’ boy Texas border patrolmen who enjoy nothing better than patrolling the very desolate “section 7” of the U.S.-Mexico border in their jeeps, tracking down illegals across the desert and taking them back to Mexico. They don’t do this out of any spite toward the illegals, but simply for the challenge, solitude and outdoor adventure the job affords them. Both men are military veterans with experience operating in dangerous territory–Ernie in Korea and Logan as a Green Beret in ‘Nam–and patrolling the Mexican border is a good peacetime use of their skills. Author La Fountaine does a good job of fleshing out their backgrounds and motivating their behavior; while they may be obnoxious “bubbas” at times who like to get drunk and visit Mexican whorehouses in their spare time, they are full of life and love adventure in a way you can’t help but respect.

As the story opens, the patrolmen learn that a new high tech border security system is going to be implemented in their region, which would turn these border cowboys into glorified desk jockeys, watching for beeping lights on computer screens instead of riding out under the sun looking for “Indians” to apprehend. This puts them in a depressed and desperate state of mind, but that soon changes when Logan, taking a shortcut through an untravelled desert wash, discovers a crashed jeep buried deep in the sand. Digging it out, he finds a skeleton and a box full of cash–$850,000 in small, sequentially numbered bills. At this point the novel becomes a detective story, as Logan and Ernie try to discover the identity of the driver, the source of the cash, and whether it is safe to spend it without alerting authorities.

Things soon become even more confusing–and deadly–as shadowy forces and corrupt players converge on the patrolmen’s turf. People connected to the cash are being killed off, and the patrolmen feel the noose tightening around them. Should they take the money and run for the border, or play it cool and deny everything? Who exactly is looking for the money, and why? Who can they trust? What was a jeep doing loaded with cash in the south Texas desert, who was the mysterious driver, and why is someone willing to kill anyone who knows anything about them? Everything is answered in the final pages, as the narrative gets increasingly dark, violent and desperate and a sinister conspiracy is revealed. While some of the plot developments seemed a little far-fetched, I think the shock ending was appropriate and should come as no surprise to veteran Shadow Warriors.

Flashpoint is one of those cynical, paranoid, pessimistic stories that could only have been written in the 1970s–a period I love because I think it dealt more realistically with the nature of society and humanity than what came before or after. It was a unique era, in the wake of the 1960s, when Americans were free to be simultaneously politically incorrect, sexually liberated, and very cynical of the powers that be. Logan expresses the spirit of the times well when, after Ernie denies that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, responds:

“Ernie,” Logan cried in anger, “how can you say that after all the shit that’s come out about Watergate and the CIA and the FBI and the assassination plots over the world? How can you still say that?”

Everything that happens subsequently in the story only vindicates Logan’s cynicism. If you enjoy novels like Six Days of the Condor and films like Parallax View, where ordinary people are caught up in the machinations of sinister forces that go right to the top of the power structure–which is revealed to be hopelessly corrupt–you should add Flashpoint to your reading list. This book is a good reminder that the Shadow War is not just a war on the ground between spies, criminals and covert operators, but a war of the mind against the vast apparatus of lies and illusions that daytime society runs on.

While I wouldn’t call La Fountaine a great writer, and some of the plot twists were a little implausible, overall he’s spun a very compelling tale here that kept me turning the pages until the end. If you like good old adventure thrillers with a heavy dose of 1970s paranoia and political intrigue, you should enjoy this as much as I did.

Get a copy of Flashpoint here.

Telefon

Telefon

Continuing with novels in my current favorite genre–espionage and assassin fiction from the paranoid 1970s–today my selection is Telefon, published in 1975 by Walter Wager. Like The Killer Elite, this book would probably be forgotten today had it not been made into a Hollywood movie two years later, starring Charles Bronson.

I was intrigued by the novel’s premise, that dozens of Soviet sleeper agents embedded in American society at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s were still active in the mid 1970s, and could be activated by a simple telephone call. Wager gives this an additional Manchurian Candidate twist by making the agents unaware of their own status and mission. Through deep hypnosis and drugs, the sleepers have been programmed to forget that they are Russian agents, and given specific sabotage missions that they will perform robotically when they receive telephoned code phrases. The missions are designed to destroy key military-industrial facilities so as to spread chaos in the United States in the event of total war.

The plot hook is that a maniacal Stalinist traitor within the KGB has gone rogue, made off with a book containing the sleeper agents’ phone numbers and activation codes, and is systematically activating them in an attempt to provoke World War III. The novel’s protagonist is a KGB super-spy named Tabbat, who has been sent to the States to stop the maniac before he brings nuclear retaliation upon mother Russia. Tabbat is like a Russian James Bond but better: smooth with the ladies, deadly with handguns, tactically brilliant and possessed of a photographic memory. He’s also hip to American culture, loves Frank Sinatra and exchanges witty banter and plenty of sex with his beautiful female KGB assistant “Barbi”.

The novel is basically a manhunt story, as Tabbat and Barbi race across America trying to catch the maniac before he destroys more targets, without arousing the suspicion of American authorities or getting taken out by hostile Russian agents. There’s a twist or two along the way and some amusing cultural commentary on 1970s America that keep things interesting.

Overall, this was a competent and a stylish Cold War thriller, reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth and Trevanian. Though the plot was somewhat far-fetched and it read more like a screenplay than a novel at times, I found it a fast and entertaining read.

Get a copy of Telefon here.

Wilderness

Wilderness

After reading many novels about professional assassins targeting civilians, it was fun to read a thriller where the tables are turned: amateurs target a professional killer for death. That’s the plot of Wilderness, published in 1979 by mystery writer Robert B. Parker (creator of the Spenser: For Hire series).

The book hooks the reader from the first page, as protagonist Aaron Newman witnesses an execution-style murder of a woman while out jogging on the railroad tracks. He notifies the police, and learns to his horror that the killer is a well-known gangster and murderous psychopath named Adolph Karl. Karl soon lets Newman know in the strongest possible terms that he shouldn’t testify about the murder, by having his thugs tie up his wife, sexually abuse her and threaten further retaliation. Newman decides that rather than cowering in fear or allowing a killer to walk free, his only honorable option is to go on the offensive and kill Karl himself. He recruits his neighbor, a big, tough Korean War vet named Chris, and they start stalking Karl and his gang.

It was funny reading how these amateurs plan and execute their hit. Some of Newman’s tactics were ridiculous, like posing as a deaf beggar and walking right into Karl’s office to reconnoiter his defenses. Since Karl had immediately fingered Newman as the rat despite the police report being confidential, why would Newman not assume that Karl knew what he looked like? Also, targeting his entire gang seems a little ambitious for amateurs; wouldn’t they at least consider going into a witness protection program?

This is really a story about the relationship between the emotionally needy Newman and his rather cold and domineering wife, and how Newman feels the need to prove his manhood by standing up to Karl. I didn’t like either character that much, but Parker paints a believable picture of their personal drama and dysfunction. The only likeable characters were a sexually charged hitman and wife sent to take out Newman; they would have been right at home in a Quentin Tarantino film.

The novel really gets exciting about halfway through, when Newman, his wife and Chris decide to hunt down Karl and his gang while they’re on a hunting trip to a lake in the Maine wilderness. It becomes a tense tale of wilderness survival, manhunting and sudden death that was gripping all the way to the end.

Overall, I enjoyed Wilderness; it was a fast-moving, fairly believable tale of how ordinary people might become ruthless killers if put in a horrific enough situation. And that’s why I enjoy shadow-fiction so much: because it lets us imagine how we might be if we ever fully embraced our shadow selves.

Get a copy of Wilderness here.

The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite by Robert Rostand is best known for being made into a 1975 film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall — a decent movie that was very different from the novel (though it did feature one of the first appearances of ninjas in American media!).

This is another story from those cynical, paranoid 1970s, when, in the wake of the high-profile assassinations of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, failed revolutions and revelations about the CIA’s nasty antics around the world, every thriller seemed to involve shadowy government or corporate entities scheming to overthrow regimes, assassinate leaders and deceive humanity (sound familiar?). The works of Robert Ludlum, James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, and the film Parallax View are good examples of the genre; The Killer Elite adds an assassination storyline reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The novel’s protagonist, Mike Locken, is an operative for SYOPS–a secret American agency tasked with transporting and securing Soviet defectors and other VIPs who may be targets of enemy action. As the story begins, three international assassins have been identified entering England following an anonymous tip-off. Their target is a popular African leader named Nyoko living in exile in London, whom his homeland’s strongman leader wants to eliminate to defeat a popular uprising.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: what if a government used a “killer elite” of assassins to take care of problems instead of military forces? It was inspired by an actual proposal made by a member of the British House of commons, as related in the novel to Locken’s boss:

Tell me, Collis, have you ever heard of John Lee? … Member of Parliament here a few years back. Absolute terror on military spending. Made a brilliant speech in the Commons in sixty-nine with a radical proposal on how to cut the size of the British Army. Lee’s idea was to turn it into a small elite of political assassins. … His logic was that a small power like Britain couldn’t hope to compete militarily with the superpowers. Lee thought in this day the political assassin was more fearsome than the Bomb, hence a better tool of diplomacy. His speech made quite a splash in the dailies.

The African strongman has decided to adopt this policy, employing mercenary assassins in place of a standing military to take care of problems like Nyoko. The other major plot element driving the narrative is the fact that Locken was nearly killed during his previous assignment, by an assassin who happens to be one of the three hunting Nyoko. So Locken has an opportunity for revenge, and his new assignment becomes very personal.

After this intriguing setup, the novel becomes a chase story, as Locken has to safely escort Nyoko and his daughter out of Britain while luring the hated assassin out so he can kill him. There are twists and turns as treacheries and deceptions are discovered, and a fairly dramatic final confrontation. But just as the story climaxes, Rostand decides to give us several pages of exposition explaining exactly how the plot twists and machinations led to this point, which I found jarring and not very good story-telling. I also found several of the characters improbable, like the old man Nyoko and his city girl daughter, who suddenly turn into fierce primal warriors in the Welsh bush.

According to his bio, author Robert Rostand (real name Robert Hopkins) spent considerable time working and living abroad, which brings a worldly sophistication to his writing that elevates this novel a notch or two above the typical thriller. But it doesn’t reach the heights of other well-travelled authors like Forsyth, Trevanian or Adam Hall. The Killer Elite wasn’t a great read, but it was interesting enough that I’ll probably try the next installment of the Mike Locken series or other works by Rostand.

Get a copy of The Killer Elite here.

The Murder Business

The Murder Business

The Murder Business by Peter C. Herring is an obscure thriller from 1976 with a premise so intriguing that I decided to track down a copy and read it. It’s basically a what-if  story: what if James Bond, due to psycho-sexual pathology and a tough childhood, turned to the “dark side” and become an assassin working for a SPECTRE-like cabal headquartered in the USA instead of Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

The dark side Bond in question is a handsome, dark-haired professional killer named Michael, who, like Bond, lives in a London flat, jets around the world on dangerous missions for a powerful cabal, is a smooth, stone-cold operative with a way with killing men and loving ladies alike. The cabal in question here is not MI6, but The Board–a circle of ten very powerful men who are said to secretly run the USA, and by extension, the world. The Board was apparently responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, as the latter were threatening to expose and reign in their shadowy power. The Board has toned down their assassinations in the 1970s, but are still targeting politicians who threaten them with exposure–often dispatching their best operative, Michael, to do the wetwork.

The novel begins with Michael doing what he does best: sneaking up on a troublesome VIP and efficiently executing him with his trusty knife. Then we get to go inside the Board’s meetings as they plot more killings to ensure their continued world domination, followed by Michael doing another job–this one rather kinky, as it involves sex, killing and Michael’s rather orgasmic reaction to both. We also get to meet Jenny, Michael’s beautiful girlfriend who is the first person in the world that the stone-cold killing machine has ever had feelings for.

The story takes a sudden turn when the Board discovers a plot to destroy them by a rival organization seeking to unseat them as the world’s top Illuminati. Michael, with Jenny in tow, takes a vacation to the south of France to get away from the heat but soon finds himself hunted by unknown assassins. Who is trying to kill him and why? What should Michael do about Jenny, now that she knows he is involved in the murder business? The tale gets darker and more violent as more assassins show up, people are killed in gruesome ways, the Board is hit hard and the stress of it all causes a mental breakdown of not only Jenny but the normally Terminator-like Michael.

Despite the promising set-up, I’m afraid Peter Herring is no Ian Fleming. The writing is often clumsy and over-written; there’s a lot of irrelevant detail about what Michael ate, the color of the sky, etc., the characters are rather cliched, and the story lacks the flair that made Fleming’s Bond a worldwide phenomenon. This reads like a men’s adventure novel that is trying to be more literary than it needs to be, or than the author is capable of. Which is too bad, because Michael had the potential to be for the spy genre somewhat like what Parker was for the crime genre: a psychopathic protagonist who shows us what life can be like on the dark side, if you throw off the yoke of governments, laws and morals and become a freelance Shadow operative dedicated purely to the ruthless execution of your craft. But to achieve that status, Herring would have had to be a better writer; he simply doesn’t bring the writing chops or technical details that Donald Westlake did to the Parker series. Nevertheless, if you are intrigued by the premise and fascinated by dark side spy, crime and assassin fiction (what I call “shadow-fiction“), you may find The Murder Business worth your time.

The Mandarin Cypher

The Mandarin Cypher

The Mandarin Cypher is the sixth book in the brilliant Quiller series by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall). Quiller is a “shadow executive” who takes on dangerous missions for a deep black agency within the British government known only as “the Bureau”. Quiller is basically a Cold War British ninja: expert martial artist, driver, pilot, scuba diver; adept at secret communications, stealth and spycraft.

In many ways Quiller is the anti-Bond and anti-Helm. Almost monk-like in his pursuit of shadow op perfection, he doesn’t gratuitously womanize, drink, or lose his temper; he’s always highly technical, introspective and controlled on his assignments. Where James Bond is a stylish playboy, Quiller is an introverted geek; where Matt Helm can be a cowboy and a thug, Quiller is a model of forbearance and professionalism. He’s like a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker character: a “grey man” with little personality or personal baggage; all business, totally focused, disciplined and stoic during ops, and absolutely formidable at his chosen profession. The major difference being that Parker is a criminal out entirely for himself, whereas Quiller is a Queen and Bureau man who has to play by other people’s rules.

In this installment, Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent in a supposed fishing accident. Quiller quickly finds himself targeted for assassination by a cell of Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the beautiful but needy widow of the murdered agent. Quiller learns that things are not as they seem, and something fishy is afoot out in the South China Sea. It’s all related to an operation code-named “Mandarin” about which Quiller is being kept in the dark by his controllers in London. After about 125 pages of Hong Kong intrigue that some readers might find a bit tedious, the climactic action sequence begins: Quiller must infiltrate an oil rig in international waters owned by the People’s Republic of China and find out what it’s up to. This leads to some intense scenes, as Quiller must survive long scuba dives, naval mines, hand-to-hand combat, hostile Chinese forces and bombshell directives from his London controllers. The surprise ending is highly dramatic, if a bit improbable.

As always with this series, the action is tense and realistic, and the stream-of-consciousness calculations of the computer-like Quiller put you right inside the head of the savant-spy. Here’s a passage that nicely sums up both the writer’s style and Quiller’s philosophy of “the edge”:

So all you can do is settle for the situation and check every shadow, every sudden movement, and try to make sure there’ll be time to duck. And of course ignore the snivelling little organism that’s so busy anticipating what it’s going to feel like with the top of the spine shot away, why don’t you run for cover, trying to make you wonder why the hell you do it, why you have to live like this, you’ll never see Moira again if you let them get you, trying to make you give it up when you know bloody well it’s all there is in life: to run it so close to the edge that you can see what it’s all about.

Having read six or seven Quiller books now, I have to concur with the widely held opinion that it is one of the very best spy fiction series ever written. The Mandarin Cypher is another fine installment in a series that no fan of the genre should miss. Highly recommended for fans of thinking man’s spy fiction.

Get a copy of this book here.


Department 17 Entry (warning – slight spoilers):

Title: The Mandarin Cypher
Author: Elleston Trevor
Writing As: Adam Hall
Publication Year: 1975
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage
Op Types: assassination, infiltration, scuba diving, evasion
Plot Elements: oil rig, missiles, submarine
Governments: Great Britain, China
Locales: London, Hong Kong
Series: Quiller
Series #: 6
Plot Synopsis: Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent and finds himself targeted for assassination by a Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the agent’s widow. Something fishy is afoot in the South China Sea; Quiller must infiltrate a Chinese oil rig, carry out a seemingly impossible mission and get back alive.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/04/21/the-mandarin-cypher/