Some thoughts on re-reading Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction nearly half a century after I first read it:


The thriller

The Eiger Sanction was published in 1972 and quickly became a bestseller.  It was followed in 1975 byafterhe Eiger Sanction movie starring a young Clint Eastwood as art expert/mountain climber/paid killer Jonathan Hemlock.  (Well, actually, Eastwood was 45 at the time, but, hey, he’s 93 now so he was a lot younger then.)

I probably read the novel right before or right after the movie came out.  I’m not sure I saw the movie at that time.

I remember the novel as a top-notch version of the sort of thriller that I was reading in my 20s throughout the 1970s — a fast-paced, page-turner.  I remembered it as such a solid, fun read that I decided to get a copy and re-read it when, earlier this year, I came across another book by Trevanian.

In the re-reading, it was slower-paced and less gripping than I remembered, particularly the middle of the 316-page book.

The opening was sharp and compelling, and the last 100 pages when Hemlock and three other men make a run at climbing the North Face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland are truly intense.  I whipped through those pages.


The solution

The job that Jonathan Hemlock has, much against his will, been hired to carry out is the killing of the second man who took part in the murder of a US secret agent in Montreal on May 16, 1969. (Acting on government orders, he’s already killed the first participant in the slaying.)

The only thing known about this second man is that he will be taking part in the attempt on the Eiger in July. Hemlock, as the only agent of an organization called CII (obviously CIA) with enough mountain-climbing skill, is forced by his bosses to take the job. On the up-side, he demands and is promised $100,000 [$743,000 in today’s money] if he is successful.

At 37, Hemlock has been away from mountaineering for several years, and he goes to Arizona to get in training shape with his former colleague, Ben Bowman, a man who lost some toes to frostbite on a climb and would have lost his life if not for Hemlock.

Then, Hemlock heads to Kleine Scheidegg, the Swiss pass that is the staging area for anyone planning to climb the Eiger and anyone planning to watch them.  It is there that he meets the other three members of the team: Anderl Meyer, an impassive 25-year-old Austrian; Karl Freytag, a loud-mouth 26-year-old German; and Jean-Paul Bidet, a 42-year-old manufacturer with a beautiful ballerina wife who has a wandering eye.

The CII, despite its promises, fails to find out the identity of the second killer, so it’s up to Hemlock to do so and then do the killing.

I figured out the answer very early in the book.

Maybe that was because, in some corner of my brain, I had a vague memory of the solution from the first time I read the book or maybe from seeing the movie, if I did.  Or maybe it was because, over the past fifty years, I’ve read a lot of suspense novels and mysteries, and I know what to look for.

Mr. Bidet

If you were paying attention in the previous section, there was a tip-off about Trevanian’s intentions for the The Eiger Sanction.

One of the climbers and, thus, one of the suspects on the agent’s killing is Jean-Paul Bidet.

In my 20s, I probably didn’t pay much attention to his name or even know what a bidet is.  Over the decades, I’ve learned.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines it: “A bidet is a bowl or receptacle designed to be sat upon in order to wash a person’s genitalia, perineum, inner buttocks, and anus.”

Trevanian dead-pans his use of the word as the character’s name.  A comparable American name might be John Toilet.

He’s slightly more forthcoming about the name of another character, a young English woman who has sex with Hemlock in Switzerland — Randie Nickers.

Hemlock, for all his many levels of sophistication, is somewhat dense here, not recognizing the problem that the girl has with her name until she explains that the word “knickers” is British slang for panties.  (She doesn’t mention that her first name “Randie” echoes the word “randy” which means lustful. So, her name is, essentially, Lustful Panties.)


“Sexual aspirin”

Other jokey aspects of The Eiger Sanction include the presence of minor characters who are thinly veiled stand-ins for Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her husband Aristotle and for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

And then there are the risible ways that Trevanian and Hemlock, seemingly serious, talk about sex.

For instance, Hemlock asks Ben about the availability of a young woman, explaining, “I’m just feeling tough and full of sperm.”  (I’m not sure how often “full of sperm” pops up in anyone’s conversation.)

A page or two later, Trevanian explains that Hemlock “was eager to use her as sexual aspirin…”

And, later, Hemlock is thinking back over the many failed attempts to get to the Eiger summit via the North Face, nothing that, despite the many efforts, “the mountain retained its hymen.”


Didn’t get the joke

For much of the 1970s, the identity of Trevanian was a closely guarded secret, but, in 1979, Rodney William Whitaker, a film scholar, went public as the author of The Eiger Sanction and several follow-up titles.

And he made clear at that time that The Eiger Sanction was a spoof of spy novels, even though many reviewers didn’t get the joke.

I can think of several reasons for that.

For one, many spy novels are self-spoofing, such as Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger which featured a Bond girl named Pussy Galore.

For another, The Eiger Sanction wasn’t only a spoof.  There were parts of the novel where Trevanian was joking around, where he was over-writing and creating a good bit of silliness.  But there were others where he was telling a gripping story.


The mountain-climbing

As a spoof, The Eiger Sanction would have been better if it didn’t have those aspects that were compelling to the reader.  But it wouldn’t have sold many copies.

As a thriller, it would have been better without all the not-so-subtle comedy — more like The Day of the Jackal, a 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth which still is enthralling from start to finish today as it was a half century ago.

But The Eiger Sanction was still a huge bestseller, even with the spoof aspects, so Trevanian could have his cake and eat it — have his fun and still make a ton of money.

The mountain-climbing parts of The Eiger Sanction are the best parts of the novel, and they exhibit a technical knowledge of what goes into a climb and a psychological insight into the thoughts and feelings of climbers.

Re-reading the novel now, so many decades after my first time, I was mildly irritated by Trevanian’s sillinesses, but I forgave him when Hemlock got to the mountain and began his ascent.


Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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