My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Have you ever noticed that most of the famous, fictional spies are terrible at their job?
Not all parts of it, of course. There is something to be said, I suppose, for a man who can get into all kinds of trouble and still keep his wits about him (i.e. shoot a gun while skiing, bring a disabled airplane under control, etc.). But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The getting into all kinds of trouble. It seems to me that the effective spy, the reliable spy, the spy who does his job properly is the one who never, for instance, finds himself strapped to a table with a laser pointed at his jubblies. (Speaking of James Bond, I cannot believe he wasn’t fired after the debacle at the end of “Skyfall.”)
“The 9th Directive,” which is recommended to fans of the pulp/spy genre, by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall) is a classic case. The protagonist, who goes by Quiller, perhaps a pseudonym, as well, is characterized — the most I could find online about him was on Wikipedia — as a “solitary, highly capable operative,” and “a highly skilled driver, pilot, diver, linguist and martial artist.”
To this list, after having read “Directive,” I would add arrogant, clumsy, reckless, shortsighted and pain in the ass. The plot unwinds in steamy Bangkok, propelled primarily by a series of mistakes made by the supposedly proficient protagonist. (Is it possible to spoil a novel written in 1966?) I won’t belabor the point. But suffice it to say, at no point does Mr. Quiller guess that his adversary, a martial-arts-obsessed marksman/assassin named Kuo, may have anticipated his actions. Never mind that Mr. Kuo repeatedly does.
Tellingly, most Internet descriptions of Mr. Quiller mention that he prefers to work alone. This is probably for dramatic effect, but his handlers never seem to recognize this as the red flag that it is. The fact is, all grownups, in addition to shining their shoes and tipping their waitresses, tolerate supervision with grace.
I suppose it is hard cheese to point out as much. The novel about the superefficient secret agent would probably run 12 dry pages.
Certainly, none of this takes away from a rollicking good book. Mr. Trevor effortlessly creates cinematic scenes, including a blindingly gilded stupa and warehouse rafters lined with colorful fighting kites. The action compels page-turning. The ending nicely balances the cynical and the plausible.
Recommended, if you can find a copy.
- The spy novel as genre (cityfantasy.wordpress.com)
- The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall (1966, Quiller #2): Book Review, Guest-Starring Jeremy Duns (antipope.org)