Sunday, 1 November 2015

Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall


Now largely ignored or forgotten (good luck looking him up in the standard works on crime fiction — though this science fiction site has useful info) Adam Hall was one of the finest crime and thriller writers of the 20th Century. 

His 'real' name was Elleston Trevor — I put real in quotes, because his birth name was actually Trevor Dudley-Smith, and he wrote under a blizzard of pseudonyms. 

As Elleston Trevor he published The Flight of the Phoenix, a superb adventure novel which has been filmed twice, in a classic version in 1965 and a ho-hum remake in 2004.

But Trevor probably had his most enduring success with the Adam Hall pen-name, under which he released an excellent series of stripped-down, cynical and thrilling spy novels about the agent Quiller starting with The Berlin Memorandum (aka The Quiller Memorandum)  in 1965, obviously a boon year for the writer. 

The Adam Hall pseudonym became such a hit that Trevor began to reissue some of his extensive back catalogue under it.

Among the newly re-branded books were the Hugo Bishop mysteries. Bishop is a classic amateur gentleman detective. His day job, which hardly features, is writing books about abnormal and extreme psychology. The Hugo Bishop books were originally published under yet another pseudonym, Simon Rattray, and six of them appeared in the 1950s.

Initially the books had chess-based titles, making play on Bishop's name (Knight Sinister, Queen in Danger, Bishop in Check). Trevor evidently got bored with this halfway through the series and chose a new paradigm. 

The last three books were Dead Silence, Dead Circuit and Dead Sequence. The one we're discussing here, Dead Circuit, was sufficiently well received at the time to be serialised as a BBC radio drama. (And was issued as an audio book in Australia in 2012, read by John Lee. You can listen to a sample here.)

In the early 1970s, with the Adam Hall pseudonym proving so successful, Trevor cannily decided to recycle the Hugo Bishop stories under that by-line. He also altered the titles of the last three novels to bring them into line with the chess theme, so that all six books sat together more uniformly as a series.

Thus the novel under discussion was originally published as Dead Circuit by Simon Rattray in 1955, but was reprinted in 1972 as Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall. The author was actually called Elleston Trevor, and his real name was Trevor Dudley-Smith. I'm glad that's all clear.

Rook's Gambit is sometimes dated and clichéd. Our hero smokes a pipe and drives a grey vintage Rolls Royce in the classic tradition. 

Also in the classic tradition, he has a friend who, conveniently, is a senior cop who gives him absurd amounts of access. There are lines like "He must be working like a black." (Trust me, that could have been a lot worse.) 

And the guests at a bohemian party include "four reefer smokers and a nymphomaniac" (the latter, fleeting, description was meretriciously exploited for the cover blurb of the 1970s paperback as if it represented a major feature of the book). And there's some rather heavy handed wisecracking.

There's also some wisecracking which I rather enjoyed: "If I'm not back by cock's-crow, call out the Camel Corp."... "Where are you going?" "To see the maharajah about a jar of marmalade."... "If any stranger calls, shoot him in the stomach and then ask him for his card."

The book is somewhat reminiscent of John Creasey's Dr Palfrey tales in that the McGuffin turns out to be a clunky pulp science fiction device — quite literally a death ray ("It causes immediate mutation of the body's electricity"). 

But Trevor writes a much finer prose than Creasey: "the rain came down bead-bright"; he describes the screech of an old fashioned elevator "scaring the echoes"; and as the villain prepares to makes his escape, in a most casual and confident fashion, "Bishop thought of an eagle, released from a cage, studying its way to freedom before it rose."

There is also some welcome humour. "Is it any cooler on the balcony?" "Only when you jump off it." And nice hard-boiled description of the femme fatale who is working with the bad guy: "her voice was like honey being poured through a velvet sieve." And then this absolutely brilliant bit: "She smiled... Bishop was reminded of opening his refrigerator." 

Rook's Gambit is a little too clunky and of its period to really make the grade, but there are a lot of good things in it. 

Personally I would have liked to see more of Bishop's Siamese cat: "The Princess Chu Yi-Hsin was on the davenport, watching them with half-closed amethyst eyes." Trevor writes very well about this Siamese — "A cat has a phrase for scampi; it is Christmas-in-Paradise" — which perhaps isn't surprising. Under assorted names he had written numerous children's books with animals as the protagonists.

Some good cat writing aside, probably the most interesting feature of Rook's Gambit is the way the cinematic cutting of the Quiller books is already evident, as is the great concision and the technique of telling the story largely through dialogue.

Not a classic, but a flawed and often fascinating early work by a writer who was on his way to becoming a master of the genre.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the New English Library version comes from a site called — hilariously and not inaccurately — Most Boring Covers. The 1973 White Lion hardcover reprint, also jolly boring, comes from Caerwen Books at ABE. The much superior US Pyramid edition comes from the wonderfully named Books From the Crypt at ABE. The gorgeous facsimile Boardman dustjacket — a facsimile because the original is crazy rare and would cost a fortune — is from the invaluable Facsimile Dust Jackets site. The striking cover art for this splendid Boardman edition is of course by the great Denis McLoughlin. The audio book image is from Audible Australia.)

2 comments:

  1. Great review/post as ever Andrew. I used to really like reading the Quiller novels a few years back

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  2. Hey Mark, I loved Quiller, and while researching this post I discovered that there's a load of them I haven't read... Trevor seems to have had a late burst of energy with the character. I'm looking forward to catching up with them. Keep reading!

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