Obituary: Elleston Trevor

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The Independent Online
Trevor Dudley Smith (Elleston Trevor), writer: born 17 February 1920; married 1947 Jonquil Burgess (died 1986, one son), 1987 Chaille Anne Groom; died 21 July 1995.

Elleston Trevor will be remembered, as "Adam Hall", as the author of The Berlin Memorandum (1965; in America The Quiller Memorandum), the first in a series of best-selling tough and suspenseful spy thrillers with a distinctly noir-ish edge, featuring a ice-cold killing-machine, or "shadow executive", called Quiller.

In the United States The Quiller Memorandum gained the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as Best Novel, the year after John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and two years after Eric Ambler's The Light of Day did likewise. Aided by this terrific critical and popular bump-start, the Quiller series ran for nearly 30 years, although there was far more to Elleston Trevor than Quiller.

Indeed, there was far more to Elleston Trevor than "Elleston Trevor", which was merely one of the author's more bankable noms de plume. He had around a dozen in all, including Trevor Burgess, Caesar Smith (Heatwave, 1957: a particularly fine, atmospheric thriller), Mansell Black, Simon Rattray, and Warwick Scott (all of whose 1950s output - Knight Sinister, Queen in Danger, Bishop in Check - was issued 20 years later as by Adam Hall post-Quiller, in the US).

Elleston Trevor was born in 1920 as Trevor Dudley Smith, and much of his earliest work appeared under that name. His education (much-hated prep school, loathed public school) was interrupted by the Second World War and he never went to university; instead he served in the RAF as a Flight Engineer for the duration. While in the RAF, however, he also produced a dozen books - by no means sub-Kenneth Grahame anthropomorphic fantasies for children, such as Rippleswim the Otter (1943), Scamper-Foot the Pine Marten (1944) and Shadow the Fox (1945), as well as thrillers and an immense quantity of short stories.

His publisher at this time was one of the most remarkable of the "backstreet brigade": Gerald George Swan (1902-1980), an erstwhile Church Street market barrowboy with three warehouses, stuffed with pulp fiction, worth their weight in gold during the war-time magazine and book paper shortage. Although payment for Swan books was at best dismal, Trevor seems to have had a genuine liking for, and loyalty towards, the publisher, probably because Swan had given him his first break. Years later, when his books were produced by top-flight publishers such as Heinemann, Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton, Trevor himself still allowed Gerald Swan to issue a couple of titles, including the tense supernatural thriller The Mind of Max Duvine (1960).

Trevor became a best-seller during the 1950s with a startling run of excellent adventure novels mostly set during the Second World War. Squadron Airborne (1955, based on his own experiences in the RAF) and The Killing Ground (1955, a tank unit at the Normandy beachhead ) as well as Gale Force (1956), The Big Pick-Up (1955, almost the definitive Dunkirk novel) and The Pillars of Midnight (1957) all testified not only to his capacity for hard work but to an ability to turn out a quality product under pressure.

But then Trevor was always the consummate professional who also had the priceless gift of all truly creative writers of being able effortlessly to transform bare bones description into riveting material. Alan Hill, a Heinemann director, once congratulated him on the astonishingly detailed background to one of his spy thrillers, The Warsaw Document (1970), in which Quiller nimbly spikes KGB big guns by wrecking a Soviet scheme to attack Warsaw. "You must have been researching there for weeks," said Hill admiringly. It turned out Trevor had never even been to Poland, let alone Warsaw; a guide-book and a street-map had been all he'd needed, together with a fund of descriptive adjectives and a powerful imagination.

During the 1950s Trevor was one of Heinemann's star popular authors. Along with Nevil Shute, the Americans Erle Stanley Gardner, Erskine Caldwell and Frank Yerby, the Australian Arthur Upfield (whose skilful tales of his Aboriginal sleuth Detective Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte were much admired by Upfield's fellow-writers as well as eagerly sought out in the lending libraries), and the incomparable Georgette Heyer. At one stage a short Authors At Home promotional film was shot at Trevor's home in Roedean, near Brighton, where, he was glimpsed at his typewriter, and flying kites and racing miniature cars, both hobbies he followed with enthusiasm.

With popularity came a widening of his fictive boundaries. The Billboard Madonna (1960) concerned the crazed and cut-throat hurly burly of American advertising; Bury Him Among Kings (1970) the disillusioned flower of the nation's youth during the First World War. The Flight of the Phoenix (1964) was a superb piece of genre fiction which featured the rebuilding of a crashed aircraft deep in the Saharan wastes; Robert Aldrich made a masterly job of directing the film.

Elleston Trevor was no master of complex characterisation, but as an ideas-man and a spinner of enthralling yarns he had few peers. Once he had made his mark he escaped from England, living for 15 years in Europe before settling in Arizona where he lived, happily writing his stories (his latest was finished only weeks before he died), for the last 20 years of his life.

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