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Books, Reviews, Writing

Strictly Shut-Ended: “Quiller Balalaika”

12.21.09 | 3 Comments

So last night I finished Quiller Balalaika, the 19th and final novel about British superspy Quiller by Elleston Trevor (under his pen name “Adam Hall”). It was written in 1995, and deals with the rise of organized crime is post-Soviet Russia. It’s an above average entry in the series, and seemed especially good after the disjointed Kobra Manifesto. I intentionally saved Balalaika until then end, and not just because it was the last in the series. I read it last because, as he wrote it, Trevor was dying from cancer.

If the reality of his daily life affected the story, I didn’t notice it much. Perhaps in Quiller’s gambit to bring home the big prize, in which he risks more than he ever has before, and even admits to it, or in his open spirituality, but even these are not out of character with the rest of the books. And this is no “last episode”; unlike “M*A*S*H” or “Cheers”, for example, this is just one more adventure in a string of them. Trevor had said what he wanted, and didn’t have anything to add.

More remarkable is the fact that this book includes afterwords by Trevor’s wife and his adult son, in which they describe the last months and even days of his life. The writer loved life, wanted more, and keenly felt the loss of things he would never do. One thing he was damned sure he would do: finish his final work, dictating the last few pages as he was too weak to type.

Then the book was done, and so was he.

I wish I had met him. He was attending conventions as late as 1995, when he was already quite ill, and if I had been involved at all in mystery fandom then, we might have met. He sounds like such an interesting man, a proper gentleman, but engaging rather than reserved.

I wonder if we can see reflections of him in Quiller, his greatest creation. Quiller’s passion, his compassion, his discipline and neuroticism. Quiller could be fatalistic, could see that there may be no way out, could know that one day there would be no way out, and yet he always tried to pull one last rabbit out of the hat…

When I finish up a series like this and know that I’ll never read another Quiller book, I always feel a sense of loss. I always want more. But in this case it’s not just the books I’ll miss. I could have met him if I’d only known, and now, it’s too late.

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