Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Scorpion Signal (1980) by Adam Hall

In the spy thriller genre, Adam Hall never got the respect he deserved, probably because his spy, Quiller, fell between the twin poles of Fleming and Le Carre. A Quiller thriller isn't as over the top as the former, nor as realistic as the latter. Hall is, however, a better writer than either one. Quiller, who never uses a gun, is an expert driver, pilot, martial artist, and has the Bureau's highest rating for being able to withstand torture. The Bureau, a special section of the British Secret Service, is Quiller's employer and is tasked with the hairiest assignments. What distinguishes the character of Quiller is his almost clinical ability to analyze his own physical and psychological reactions to stress, danger, fear, and violence. These passages have an almost Proustian attention to sensory details that might strike some readers as strange, but there's no doubt they set Quiller (and Hall) apart from the common herd.

Hall is also an exceptional writer of action sequences, often using a sudden, jolting stream-of-consciousness technique that generates a real feeling of excitement. The Scorpion Signal concerns a rogue British agent who may be plotting an assassination attempt on the Russian president, and, like almost all the Quillers, the tension doesn't let up until the very last sentence. Reading a Quiller is a text book exercise in how to write a thriller that's both exciting and a credit to the profession of writing. Hall puts sentences together in the same way Enzo Ferrari crafted parts to assemble a GTO. His muscular prose is a wonder of efficiency, flows beautifully, and with a few, deft words he can artfully sketch a character, a place or an emotion. Lee Child (my review of Worth Dying For is here) writes equally compulsive thrillers, but, in keeping with the automotive metaphors, his prose is more of a Detroit muscle car: loud, brash, and not very elegant in the corners. 

As good as Hall was, The Scorpion Signal was effectively his swan song. He wrote ten more Quillers, but they became formulaic, and Hall's right-wing politics began to make distractingly polemical appearances. The most action-packed of the Quillers is The Kobra Manifesto (1976), but possibly the best is The Tango Briefing (1973), in which our hero must deal with a shipment of nerve gas that's gone missing in the Sahara. Hall, whose real name was Elleston Trevor, was an absolute writing machine. He wrote under eleven different pen names and produced dozens and dozens of books in virtually all genres. As Elleston Trevor he wrote The Flight of the Phoenix, which has been filmed twice. I don't think the Quillers are still being printed, but there seems to be a good supply in used book stores. Now if only used book stores were in good supply

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