Monday, April 19, 2010

The Quiller Memorandum

I was very excited that my parents were able to beat the Volcanic Ash Cloud of Doomp and make it to Hong Kong, because they brought with them a consignment of books and music that I've been busily buying from Amazon since I was last in England. I'm 45 pages into The Quiller Memorandum and I feel ashamed that I hadn't read it before, nor heard of it until Charlie Stross namechecked it for his third Laundry novel.

It's a tightly written thriller, set in Berlin twenty years after the close of the Second World War, with Quiller following the orders of the eponymous memorandum to hunt down a Nazi war criminal. The book starts with a lovely piece of misdirection, and with every page I just feel more in awe at how elegantly and efficiently the picture of Quiller and Berlin is built up.

It's also a very short book, which suggests it will be a different experience to the monolith of The Good German that I read shortly after I got to Hong Kong. That was good, but harder to grip, both physically and also in terms of the more complex plot. There's no flab to Quiller; it's not even particularly clear to me what he looks like, or why he bears the scars that he does, but that's part of the joy of this; what Quiller looks like is at this point fairly irrelevant to the plot.

It's also likely that this isn't going to be the happiest book ever written. Nazi war criminals are not exactly quaint now, but with sixty-five years since the war, there's a certain sort of distance from them. They're either still wearing black uniforms and stalking across Europe with the Wehrmacht, or they're crazed dentists running through Central Park (or being hunted down while they try to clone Hitler). Laurence Olivier was at least avoiding being typecast by appearing in both Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil, I suppose.

But for a book written in the 1960s, when the wounds were still fresh but I suppose for many people the horrors of the Final Solution were not as clearly described as they have been by more recent historians, some of the crimes described in the book must have been more visceral than they feel today.

It's strange to think that when we think of British espionage in fiction, James Bond seems to stand tall above everyone else, when Adam Hall, Len Deighton and John le Carre have produced so much more that has more structure, depth and shock value to it. Then again, I'm rereading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold concurrently with Quiller, and that reminds me that le Carre does seem to stick to a certain formula. It's like a cynical version of Chekhov's maxim; if there's a person introduced to you in the first chapter, they're going to be shot in the last one. Or something bad will happen, somehow.

But James Bond, with his cartoonish appetites for stimulants, whisky, slapping women and smoking endless handrolled cigarettes, translates to a more pleasureable movie-going experience than Quiller or Smiley. Even if you were to decry the films as failing to be faithful to at source material, you'd have to admit that the source material wasn't so brilliant. It's still a shame that there isn't more of le Carre's work on the large screen, although again I suppose the complexity of it maybe lends itself better to television serials.

Then again, the Ipcress File did pretty well for Deighton, so it's not as if Fleming was the only man with a lock on spy fiction in the Sixties. Again, I came to Deighton late, but SS-GB was one of the greatest books I've read this year; how he managed to pull off a book set in a post-war London where the Nazis won, and not leave you wanting to slam your head in a door at the bleakness of it all, was something wonderful.

All these superlatives aside, I need to get on with The Great Old Game; I have the start done, but now as I drag myself through the redrafting process, it's clear there's a lot more work ahead of me. It's only by standing on the shoulders of giants that you see how tall those giants are.


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