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 is not the most difficult mountain in the world, the Eiger is the most treacherous because of its unpredictable storms, avalanches and temperature changes. A team composed of four famous climbers is prepared to take on the Eiger, and one of the team is the man to be murdered….
Though "The Eiger Sanction" is superior suspense on almost every page, the mountain-climbing sequence at the end is far the best part, for here the details and the atmosphere are most authentic. The pseudonymous author has done enough climbing himself to use the situation imaginatively. Nothing puts flesh on the bones of a thriller like a dose of genuine expertise, and the Eiger turns out to be a splendid adversary.
Mr. Trevanian has no love for the Swiss and he seizes every opportunity to satirize them. The hotel nearest the mountain has telescopes on the terrace, and every ascent attracts vultures who pay fantastic prices to watch the climbers die or, disappointingly, make it to the top and back. Some of these vultures come almost libelously close in their resemblance to top celebrities on the social and Hollywood scenes.
There are moments—in the climb, particularly, and in Jonathan's rueful conversations with Jemima—when one forgets that this is not a "serious" novel….
Almost as an afterthought, as if he did it only because it is de rigueur, the author tells us that the purpose of the sanction is to keep our cold war enemies from acquiring information that could give them superiority in biological warfare. This part of the plot is given extremely short shrift, though, and we get the feeling that Mr. Trevanian is unwilling to waste any more space on it.
The ending of the book is a bouquet of ironies. There is justice of a cruel—a very chic cruel—sort, and a most ambivalent step in the direction of humanizing Jonathan. One is both satisfied on the last page and already hooked on Jonathan's next assignment—to discover whether life, love and circumstance have actually forced him to unbend, or whether there is one of us in this vale of tears who can escape with his cool intact.
Anatole Broyard, "Something for Everybody," in The New York Times (copyright © 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1972, p. 45.