Trevanian Essay - Critical Essays



Trevanian 1925–

(Pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker; has also written under pseudonyms of J. L. Moran, Nicholas Seare, and Benat le Cagat) American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Although Trevanian is best known for his suspenseful thrillers, he writes under several names on subjects as diverse as art, law, and religion. Trevanian's first novel, The Eiger Sanction (1972), details the life of his antihero, Jonathan Hemlock, an art historian and part-time assassin whose suave style recalls James Bond. Both Hemlock and The Eiger Sanction met with immediate popularity; however, Trevanian's sequel, The Loo Sanction (1973), was less enthusiastically received. In his subsequent novels, The Main (1976) and Shibumi (1979), Trevanian adds a philosophical element to his lively plots.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

Newgate Callendar

The author who writes under the name of Trevanian is primarily interested in giving the reader a good time, and he resoundingly succeeds in ["The Eiger Sanction," a] book about a professional assassin (in government employ) out on a job. But this particular agent is a highly-cultured professor of art, a skilled mountain climber, a demon with the ladies and a murderous, pitiless infighter.

Trevanian goes about everything skillfully. There is plenty of action, plenty of sex, some rather bright dialogue, and a quality of intelligence that makes "The Eiger Sanction" a little more than another post-Fleming exercise in mayhem. Trevanian has a lot of fun making up names for his characters. Most of those names have sexual connotations: George Hotfort (a woman), Randie Nickers (another woman), Anna Bidet. The hero's name, by the way, is Jonathan Hemlock. Read the book and see why.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Eiger Sanction," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1972, p. 45.

Anatole Broyard

Mr. Trevanian is not only a better writer than most of those who turn out suspense novels, he has also made a computerlike analysis of the various elements readers look for in such novels and included one of each. His hero [in "The Eiger Sanction"], for example, is a masterpiece of conflicting qualities—something for everybody—but he is still within the limits of the willing suspension of disbelief. Jonathan Hemlock is an immensely popular professor of art history; an ardent collector of modern paintings, illicitly acquired; a man who can kill without compunction, not out of patriotism, but simply to support his expensive life-style. Yet, with all this, he is also capable of true friendship and loyalty. In the best James Bond tradition, he is an irresistible seducer of women—but with a difference. His sexual virtuosity is appealingly penalized by the fact that he feels almost nothing in bed, except for a negative athletic release.

Though he is as cool as they come, Jonathan, we find, is vulnerable after all—to love, of all things. And who should his love be but [Jemima Brown,] a black girl! How about that for originality and "relevance" in the literary backwater of the suspense story? She is a marvelous black girl, too—not a cliché showing anywhere—and she handles her femininity and her ethnic situation with a mixture of irony, humor and realism that is rare enough in any kind of book these days….

The "Sanction" of the title is a murder only Jonathan can handle, because it must be one in the course of climbing a deadly mountain. Although it...

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The Spectator

Just as the hero of the novel of suspense and of the police procedure novel is increasingly a damaged figure, so the hero of the thriller is a lone figure, having affinities with the mystery man in the Western who rides into town at the beginning and out again at the end. Jonathan Hemlock is the central figure in a first thriller by Trevanian, The Eiger Sanction…. He is an art historian and collector, who works part time as an assassin to earn the money to pay for his proclivities. In this yarn his dreadful boss, the albino Mr. Dragon, sends him up the North Face of the Eiger with instructions to kill one of his climbing companions, though he does not know which. I have been a sucker for any story about mountains, especially the Eiger,… and every piece of action in the book is, indeed, gripping and terrifying. The difficulty is that Trevanian wrote and his publishers have marketed. The Eiger Sanction as a jokey, sexy spoof of a thriller, and the nonsense elements thus imported into the narrative spoil its line and pace. Underneath the floss, however, is a splendidly straight-forward and acutely rendered tale of high adventure.

"Cosgrave's Crime Compendium," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 231, No. 7568, July 14, 1973, p. 53.∗

Anatole Broyard

"The Loo Sanction" by the pseudonymous Trevanian is not as good, alas, as his first effort "The Eiger Sanction". It has all the same ingredients, but while the earlier book seemed like a writing adventure the author himself enjoyed, this one has the feel of a commercial venture. It reads like an unexpired application of a successful formula. Jonathon Hemlock, the hero, is an internationally famous art critic and former government assassin, who accepted assignments only when he needed money to buy a stolen painting. His esthetics outweighed his ethics. This, like its inverse, is an occupational hazard all critics must face.

"The Loo Sanction" opens with a man impaled through the anus on a spike in a church tower—a baroque image if there ever was one. A Lesbian is "raped" to death with kitchen utensils, in what may be a convoluted pun on women's lib. The arch villain of the book is a homme fatale who believes that death is the only true orgasm. He is a menace to the British body politic because he has films of its heads of state in a state of nature, taken in "the Cloisters," a brothel out of Fellini or Buñuel.

Hemlock is another updated James Bond, and that may be the beginning of an unfortunate trend. If secret agents of "avant-garde suspense" get any more dehumanized—the sexual instinct being the only surviving trace of homely old homo sapiens—they might start shacking up with Mr. Bartram's computers.

Trevanian has both wit and invention, but suspense readers are true believers of a heretical sort and they know when they are being merely manipulated. The best mysteries are a collusion between author and reader to conceal for a few hours the fact that it's all just make-believe. The author of "The Loo Sanction" tries to compensate for writing down to his readers by writing over them as well with words like "cupric," and "ecu" and tag-ends of art criticism. But the gun misses fire.

Anatole Broyard, "Blood on the Computer," in The New York Times (copyright © 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1973, p. 37.∗

Dick Datchery

[How] come an author can write one good mystery novel and then turn out [The Loo Sanction,] a disaster? Unless I was too charitable when I judged Trevanian's The Eiger Sanction, there was much to recommend it. This one should have been left at the nearest loo. And a loo, in case you don't know, is an English term for w.c. Which reminds me: If Mr. Trevanian intends to locate any more stories in London, he should do more careful research on English life or get himself an English editor.

Dick Datchery, in a review of "The Loo Sanction," in The Critic (© The Critic 1974; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 32, No. 5, May-June, 1974, p. 77.

Oswell Blakeston

[In The Loo Sanction,] Trevanian works to give rip to his mystery with the unusual: a villain who holds all the patents on sexual excitement, a vicar who's head of a secret government department to assassinate assassinators, a hero who's a secret agent and an art critic. But the author uses up all his ingenuity with the amusing trimmings and the suspense situation may be a man shooting his way out of a house packed with armed guards, a routine improbability which now rates zero acceptability. Incidentally one of the victims in this extravaganza is murdered in a lavatory.

Oswell Blakeston, in a review of "The Loo Sanction" (© copyright Oswell Blakeston 1976; reprinted...

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[Nothing in The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction] could have prepared the aficionado for what we have here [in The Main]. In those books, he showed a more-than-readable style, a good eye for the amusingly grotesque and a taste for the kind of impending horror; the kind of tantalizing unanswered questions that make people read fast and wait for the next book.

Strictly speaking, The Main is not impossibly removed from those precedents; if it must be put in a pigeonhole, it is a highly professional police-procedural murder mystery set in Montreal's immigrant district—an area like New York's Lower East Side in an earlier generation. It rises from this pigeon-hole because...

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Evan Connell

The Main is a detective story with enough wit and perception to attract readers who don't give a damn who killed Roger Ackroyd. Lieutenant La Pointe plods around a shabby quarter of Montreal trying to identify a murderer, though just who the villain may be seems almost irrelevant—of less concern to us than La Pointe himself, for he is getting old and has a bad heart and is lonely. One night he picks up a crippled girl. He doesn't much like her, nor does she like him; but she stays on day after day because she has no place to go, and from his point of view it's better than coming home to an empty apartment. So they more or less live together while La Pointe worries about his heart and attempts to solve the...

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Donald Newlove

The Main, a Montreal slum, swarms with petty criminals, riffraff, immigrant Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Germans, French, Chinese, gimpy vags and back-alley whores, men in drag, flabby go-go girls, damaged daughters, the old, the soiled, the failed—"the crawling, faceless Wad." Weeks of "pig weather, with its layers of zinc cloud, moist and icy, pressing down on the city," have held back the cleansing winter snow. Through this garble of garbage humanity and thick blanket of blues slouches Police Lieut. Claude LaPointe, 30 years on the force (and the street), fists deep in a shapeless, rumpled overcoat, checking alleys, padlocks on shops, hangers about and crafty cripples—a mirthless, leathery Jean Gabin padding...

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John Leonard

Mr. Trevanian, whose first name and whose real name are withheld from us, explains rather late in the murderous game of his new thriller, "Shibumi," that "only in Japan was the classical moment simultaneous with the medieval."…

This, of course, is quite silly. Classical moments and medieval moments are invested and invoked whenever historians, or novelists, have run out of ideas with which to scratch and itch in the narrative. Such moments coincide arbitrarily, according to the needs of mythic flimflam. (p. 262)

Much, in fact, of "Shibumi" is quite silly. It just happens to be the most agreeable nonsense in commercial fiction this spring. The Mother Company, a consortium of oil...

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Christopher Dickey

Nothing quite equals lying in the summer sun—having already paid your dues to the multinational corporations for exorbitantly priced gasoline, ridiculously priced motels and, if things continue as they have, beach sand itself that costs money—and reading a good book about one man alone fighting the insidious system.

So consider this man, Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel, hero of [Shibumi], as he confronts for the first time the hatchet man of the megalomaniacal—and successfully so—Mother Company. (Mother's man is named Jack O. Diamond, Trevanian never having been terribly subtle with names.)

Diamond is dispatched to stop Hel from using his unique prowess to halt the PLO...

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Berton Roueché


["Shibumi"] is certainly not the kind of book that is bought to impress oneself or one's friends. Its popularity is, however, something of a puzzle.

"Shibumi" is a curiously old-fashioned novel. It often brings to mind such picaresque melodramas of the past as "Anthony Adverse" and "Scaramouche." Trevanian's elegant Anthony Adverse, his brilliant Scaramouche, is one Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel, born in Shanghai in the nineteen-twenties of a White Russian mother and a German father, and raised and molded in wartime Japan. He is immediately perceived to be a superior being. Some of his excellence he owes to his mother's early influence: "One spoke of love and other...

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