After the over-the-top novel Chant, I was in the mood for something more realistic and better written, but with many of the same elements: 1980s action, a sinister Eastern mystic, martial arts assassins, and an ultra-skilled Western shadow warrior who takes them on. The Peking Target, published in 1982, fit the bill nicely; it’s the tenth installment in the brilliant Quiller series by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall).
As the story opens, “shadow executive” Quiller is watching a body being fished out of the Thames river, which we learn is that of a fellow Bureau operative who had just arrived from Peking with a most urgent and sensitive message for his superiors. Unfortunately, the agent was murdered on his way from the airport and his secret message died with him. Quiller himself is nearly killed when a car rams him as he’s leaving the murder scene. It’s apparent that something very sinister is going on in Peking, which someone is willing to kill agents on their home soil to protect. So the Bureau sends Quiller, still banged up from the hit attempt, to China to investigate.
The assassinations escalate dramatically after Quiller arrives in Peking under cover as a security man for the British delegation. The British Secretary of State is blown sky high right next to Quiller during the funeral of the Chinese premiere, his body absorbing the blast and saving the agent from serious injury. Then the American ambassador is taken out, and Quiller evades another murder attempt on the street—only his superior martial arts skill saving him from death at the hands of his skilled assailant. Two more agents are killed just before Quiller can get the information they had about the assassins, one found dead in the coils of his own pet boa constrictor. While all this is going on, Quiller learns that a mysterious figure named Tung Kuo-feng is involved—a Triad leader who commands a team of elite assassins but whose whereabouts is unknown. After the beautiful Li-fei is sent to kill Quiller, thinking that he killed her brother, a Triad assassin, Quiller learns that Tung is holed up in a former monastery on a mountain in a remote part of South Korea.
The novel shifts into overdrive for the final third as Quiller begins his set piece mission: to air-drop near the mountain before dawn, make his way stealthily to the monastery, infiltrate the grounds, take out Kuo-feng and get out without getting killed by his retinue of assassins. It’s a tall order, but Quiller is the late 20th century British equivalent of a ninja, so if anyone can do it he can! The mission is further complicated by the assignment of a female guide who is a skydiving expert, mountaineer and fluent Korean speaker, as Quiller normally works alone. As usual with Quiller missions, things go sideways almost immediately and the executive is forced to improvise. Without providing too many spoilers, Quiller faces some brutal adversity but manages to get to the monastery, where he discovers that other world powers are involved who are using the assassinations to spread chaos for a nefarious geopolitical purpose.
This was probably the most fast-paced, action-packed Quiller installment I’ve read. Quiller is a real ninja in this one, who showcases his impressive range of skills: he kills men with his bare hands (he never carries a gun), evades pursuers by floating under debris on a river, air-drops into enemy territory by night, evades and ambushes a sniper, sends cleverly coded messages to deceive his captors, escapes a cell, sneaks around a well-guarded enemy compound, creates a diversionary explosion, flies a helicopter, and gets into an incredible mental battle with Kuo-fong in which the Triad leader showcases his impressive “ki” powers to try to control Quiller. Though never cartoonish, this one is slightly over the top by Trevor’s standards. I suspect he was influenced by the success of Eric van Lustbader’s blockbuster 1980 novel The Ninja and similar works of that era, and decided to turn up the ninja elements in this one. There was something in the zeitgeist of the early 1980s that produced a lot of great spy/assassin/ninja thrillers, and this is another one to add to the list. Great read.
Get a copy of The Peking Target here.