The Peking Target

 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 streetonly 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 involveda 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.

Quiller Solitaire

Quiller Solitaire

The early 1990s were a challenging time for espionage thriller writers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it was difficult to find adversaries that were both convincing and menacing enough to make dramatic villains. China was not yet ready for prime-time as the West’s new arch-rival, drug lords weren’t sufficiently organized or ideological, Third Reich holdovers were too long in the tooth, KGB-sponsored terrorism of previous decades had died down, Islamic terrorists hadn’t yet struck hard, Russian gangsters hadn’t yet emerged as a new bogeyman, and sinister corporate overlords struck too close to home. Was the era of the super-spy over?

Apparently not. In Quiller Solitaire, the 16th installment of the Quiller series published in 1992, author Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall) manages to weave a compelling mission for Quiller in the post-Cold War era that involves a Red Army Faction splinter group, ex-Stasi officers, Islamists and a terrorist plot that looks rather prescient given the Bojinka plot and the 9/11 attacks of the decade to come.

As the novel opens, Quiller is being debriefed about the death of a fellow Bureau agent who was incinerated when his car was run off the road and exploded. Quiller, who was following the agent to his rendezvous, witnessed the crash and now feels guilty about the death and obligated to avenge it. The agent had been investigating the murder of a diplomat in Berlin by suspected terrorists of the German Red Army Faction, and now Quiller is sent in to investigate both murders. Quiller learns that a group called “Nemesis” is planning a imminent terrorist attack using a commercial airliner, possibly inspired by the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when a bomb aboard a Pan Am flight exploded over Scotland, killing 270 people. Desperate to stop the plot, Quiller goes in alone, posing as an international arms dealer and dangling a deadly carrot in front of the Nemesis leader in hopes of luring him out and destroying the organization.

Like most novels in this series, a large chunk of the narrative consists of Quiller attempting to surveil and avoid surveillance by enemy operatives, both on foot and in automobiles (he’s an expert driver), his stream-of-consciousness calculations punctuated by short, sharp hand-to-hand encounters (he’s also a lethal martial artist). Quiller novels are “spy procedurals” in much the same way Parker novels are “thief procedurals”: we get a detailed look inside the world of a very focused and disciplined shadow operator, see how he plans his operations, seizes opportunities, neutralizes threats and moves relentlessly forward to complete his missions despite the inevitable f*k-ups, plot twists and enemy actions.

Also typical for this series, in the last third of the book the action really heats up, as Quiller learns more details about the plot and takes desperate measures to stop it. Operating deep undercover, cut off from Bureau directors, he has to fly by the seat of his pants and gamble his life on an apparently suicidal mission. Things get increasingly eerie as the enemy plot begins to resemble 9/11; was Kalid Sheikh Mohammed a fan of the series? The highlight of the story for me was an airdrop into the depths of the Sahara desert by an exhausted Quiller, as he penetrates to the heart of the Nemesis operation and moves toward the cliff-hanging airborne climax.

Quiller Solitaire is one of my favorite entries in a series that is one of the masterworks of the spy fiction genre. 27 years and 16 books into the series, there is no sign of any decline in quality and the stories remain as riveting as ever, even as the Cold War that spawned Quiller is history.

Get a copy of Quiller Solitaire here.

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal, published in 1980, is the ninth entry in the brilliant Quiller spy fiction series by Trevor Elleston (writing as Adam Hall).

In this installment, “shadow executive” Quiller is called back to London after only two weeks of recovery time from his previous mission, due to an international emergency that calls for his special skills. Apparently a fellow Bureau operative named Shapiro was captured in Russia and taken to the notorious Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow, but somehow escaped only to be abducted again in Germany, presumably by the KGB. Shapiro has intimate knowledge of various top secret Western projects, including a highly successful Russian spy network code-named “Leningrad”. Quiller’s mission is to find Shapiro, rescue him if possible, and if not, make sure he stays silent for good before he is forced to spill the beans.

Quiller at first declines the mission, but as someone who is not motivated by money, power, glory or duty so much as by personal excellence and the challenge of life on the edge, he soon relents. He is infiltrated into Moscow, and quickly finds himself playing tense cat-and-mouse games with enemy forces. Elleston excels at describing the mental side of spycraft; we get a running commentary of Quiller’s mental calculations as he tries to avoid being captured or killed by border guards, police, KGB and rogue agents. There are long stretches of very detailed descriptions of Quiller’s driving tactics, evasion maneuvers, martial arts strikes, physical condition and thought processes as he tries to stay alive. These stretches are my only real criticism of the series: they sometimes get a bit tedious and you start wishing the super-spy would stop his autistic streams of thought and move the narrative forward.

Elleston also does a great job evoking the paranoia of late Brezhnev-era Moscow, where dissident groups are protesting, police are stopping people randomly, and the KGB are always threatening to break into your flat or safe house and haul you away to Lubyanka. In fact, Quiller finds himself there at one point, facing brutal interrogation. But he manages to get free, then gets to work tracking down the people who turned him in and taking them out of action.

As is usually case in these novels, Quiller is kept partially in the dark by his London controllers, which creates misunderstandings and failures that become lethal dangers in the field. After a lot of intrigue where it’s not entirely clear where things are going, the narrative kicks into overdrive when Quiller finds Shapiro, now half-deranged from his stay in hotel KGB, and discovers what’s really going on. The story then becomes a classic race against time to stop a deadly mission before it sparks a superpower conflagration.

This was another exciting installment in the superior Quiller series. It’s basically a series of tense chases, evasions, interrogations, investigations and killings, all with big geopolitical implications–which is what a great spy novel should be. Highly recommended for fans of thinking-man’s spy fiction.

Get a copy of The Scorpion Signal here.

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/