The Quiller Memorandum: Book and Movie Review
The Quiller Memorandum (originally titled The Berlin Memorandum) was written by Adam Hall and published in 1965. It introduced the long running super-spy character, Quiller. It’s often thought to be one of the best spy novels ever written.
The Quiller Memorandum: Logline
In 1960s Berlin, a British agent is assigned to investigate a neo-Nazi organisation. He meets a mysterious woman and plays a cat and mouse game with his opponents as he seeks to locate their base, and their leader.
The Quiller Memorandum: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1961, Quiller is at a theatre in Berlin when a courier from ‘The Bureau’, the British espionage agency he works for, contacts him. An agent has been murdered, and Quiller is to continue the mission: hunting a neo-Nazi organisation called Phönix.
Quiller also learns that a notorious Nazi called Heinrich Zosen has returned to Germany. During WW2, Quiller operated undercover in the Nazi death camps trying to save as many victims as possible. He has a particular animosity for Zosen, having witnessed his callous behaviour
Quiller decides on a direct approach, aiming to make Phönix come to him rather having to search for them. He makes sure he is seen as the police arrest three Nazi war criminals. Leaving the courtroom, a hit and run driver nearly kills Quiller and a woman, Inga Lindt.
Inga says she was the target of the attempted assassination. Thinking she might have some information, Quiller goes to her apartment with her. She claims that she is a defector from Phönix and mentions an old scientist comrade of Quiller’s from the war who is now involved in research into biological weapons.
Quiller goes to see the scientist, but they are unable to talk. Later the scientist calls to arrange another meeting, but Phönix assassinate him before he can tell Quiller what he knows. Upset at his friend’s death and angry with himself for not preventing it, Quiller doesn’t resist when a doctor at the biological weapons laboratory injects him with a sedative.
He wakes in a Phönix’s base and meets Oktober, who wishes to discover what Quiller knows about Phönix. Quiller tries and fails to escape, and Oktober has him injected with a ‘truth drug’ which Quiller manages to resist. Oktober orders Quiller’s execution.
Quiller regains consciousness at the edge of the river. Thinking that his killing was botched, Quiller goes to Inga. They have sex, but afterwards Oktober and his men arrive and torture Inga to try to get Quiller to talk. He avoids it by deliberately rendering himself unconscious. To Quiller’s surprise, Oktober leaves.
The police contact Quiller to tell him that they have discovered a cypher and a vial with unknown contents in the scientist’s laboratory. They ask Quiller to try to decipher the message, which he eventually does, revealing the vial contains a plague virus. It seems the scientist was planning a revenge attack on Nazis in South America…
Inga calls and asks Quiller [blackout]to come to meet her. She introduces another defector from Phönix, who gives Quiller a dossier on Phönix’s plan to start a new war.[/blackout]
Quiller and Inga [blackout]go to the Phönix base where Quiller comes face to face with Zosen. Inga reveals herself as a double agent and tells Zosen of the file. Zosen tells Quiller the war is about to start. Inga shows Quiller the ‘shrine’, which contains the bones of Adolf Hitler.[/blackout]
Zosen tells Quiller [blackout]he is free to go as he cannot possibly stop the plan. Quiller leaves. Inga chases after him and tells him it was all an act and she is in fact on his side. Quiller pretends to believe her and gives her a fake number to call, he believes this will give him a small head start. [/blackout]
Quiller [blackout]understands the dossier is a fake, Phönix hoped to trick Quiller into thinking he had found their plans and then tail him to the Bureau’s base. Whoever finds the others base first will be able to attack and destroy it. Now he knows where Phönix’s base is, but he must lose his tail before he can report it.[/blackout]
Quiller [blackout]goes back to his hotel. At dawn he sneaks out and finds a bomb in his car. He triggers the bomb from a distance. Phönix now think he is dead and he is able to go to the Bureau without trouble and arrange an attack on the Phönix base.[/blackout]
Quiller interrogates [blackout]Zosen, learning that the Phönix plan was not to start a war but to use German troops to restore the Nazis to power and the scientist’s plague virus to prevent the Soviets and Americans interfering. He kills Zosen and disguises the execution as suicide.[/blackout]
The Quiller Memorandum: Analysis
The Quiller Memorandum has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
Quiller was perhaps the first of the super-spies. In comparison to the gentlemen amateurs of The Thirty Nine Steps and Rogue Male – and their offspring the professional agents of Casino Royale and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – The Quiller Memorandum marked the start of a further evolution – towards the spy as a kind of metaphysical superhero.
Adam Hall portrays Quiller as type of zen master. His trials are trials of the mind, and once he establishes mental control the physical battle is as good as won. Quiller never carries a gun, believing they lead to overconfidence, can tell infallibly when someone is tailing him, can resist truth drugs and torture, is an expert at hand-to-hand combat, and has a perfect idiomatic grasp of multiple languages.
Hall writes in the first person, with Quiller delivering an almost stream of consciousness description of each situation he faces. His comments are often oblique, at one remove, watching and analysing his own actions.
The Quiller Memorandum shares some of the cynical attitude of Len Deighton’s thrillers such as The IPCRESS File, but Quiller himself is not a jaded character in the way Len Deighton’s unnamed protagonist is, tortured by his failure to do more to prevent the holocaust and driven by hatred of the Nazis.
Reality: Escaped Nazis, Jewish revenge attacks and dreams of a Fourth Reich
- Post-WW2, there were many rumours of underground Nazi organisations similar to Phönix. Their main purpose seems to have been to organise ‘ratlines’ smuggling war criminals to South America.
- Although, as shown in The Quiller Memorandum, post-war denazification was largely ineffective, no genuinely threatening neo-Nazi organisation ever emerged in post-war Germany, and neo-Nazi groups remain on the political fringes.
- After WW2, groups of Jewish assassins, known as TTG, Nakam or Din, carried out revenge attacks on Germany. The most extreme plan, somewhat similar to the one in The Quiller Memorandum, involved poisoning the water supply of Nuremberg to cause mass casualties. It was not carried out.
- Other attacks, such as poisoning loaves of bread destined for SS prisoners and assassinating individuals, are documented. Although the exact number of killings is unknown, estimates are around a thousand.
The Quiller Memorandum: My Verdict
A classic, and an important step in the development of the cerebral ‘super-spy’. A must read for connoisseurs of the spy thriller.
The Quiller Memorandum: The Movie
The Quiller Memorandum was filmed in 1966 with George Segal as Quiller, Max von Sydow as Oktober and Senta Berger as Inge. The screenplay was by Harold Pinter, and the movie was directed by Michael Anderson.
The movie of The Quiller Memorandum is loosely based on the novel. It drops much of the plot, including the entire subplot about Phönix actually having a plan – in the movie they are biding their time and infiltrating.
Segal takes the tortured Quiller from the novel and makes him flippant. Von Sydow however is excellent, and Senta Berger is composed and enigmatic.
Here’s the trailer:
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