Jonathan Hemlock is a professor of art history in New York. He commutes to the city from Long Island, where he lives in an abandoned church filled with indulgences large and small, including a greenhouse wing, a giant Roman-style bath, and a humidity and temperature controlled basement gallery to display his priceless collection of Impressionist paintings (most of which were obtained through less-than-legal channels). Hemlock wants what he wants, you see, and--according to the battery of psychological tests given him by Army Intelligence when he was a soldier in the Korean conflict--lacks "the nerve of conscience" to hold him back from the pursuit and acquisitions of these wants.
To make the money to keep him in fine art and to finance his travels, Hemlock also works for the Search and Sanction Unit of the somewhat bungling American intelligence agency known as CII. Search and Sanctions eliminates those responsible for the elimination of CII's own agents; Hemlock works in Sanctions, as a freelance assassin, a job for which, considering his lack of a certain nerve, he is perfectly suited. As The Eiger Sanction opens, Hemlock is eying a $10,000 Pissarro with a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to purchase. How perfect, then, to be offered a gig, called a "sanction," in the euphemistic bureaucratic government speak of CII. But, he tells Mr. Dragon, head of Search and Sanction, it's to be his last job, and he'll be charging double his normal fee. And no, he won't sanction the as yet unidentified second subject, thank you very much, he wants out.
Hemlock travels to Montreal to carry out his assignment. There he meets up with the contact who will be providing him the specifics of the assignment, the lovely Felicity Arce--pronounced as you would expect--whom, with very little effort, he beds even as he is receiving said assignment.
Hemlock is just that good.
In addition to his superior knowledge of paintings and his talents as an assassin, Hemlock is also a world class climber. This talent is the impetus behind the enigmatic albino Mr. Dragon's ardent pursuit of Hemlock to carry out the second sanction. It seems that although Search and Sanction hasn't identified the second man on the Montreal job they have managed to ascertain that he will be involved with a party that has been organized to climb the Eiger, one of the most difficult, even murderous, of Alpine climbs. Although Hemlock has not climbed in several years, and although he has twice been defeated by the Eiger, he's the only man in the organization who could both endure the conditioning needed to prepare for a climb of this caliber and already possesses the skills.
He really is just that good.
It takes some deliciously underhanded manipulation on the part of Mr. Dragon and his minions, but Hemlock is eventually convinced to accept the job. He's whisked off to Arizona for his conditioning, and from there to Switzerland, where he must deal with a whole new class of criminal annoyance: the Eiger Birds, wealthy tourists--including a Greek shipping magnate and his American wife and a pair of bigger-than-life married actors--who descend upon the hotel facing the mountain as soon as word gets out of an attempt on its summit, so that they can watch the climb's progress and--hope upon ghoulish hope--be there to see any tragedies that might unfold. The action on the Eiger, including detailed descriptions of climbing technique, routes, and weather challenges, is gripping, as are Hemlock's attempts to suss out which of his fellow climbers is his target...and then get him before he gets Hemlock.
The Eiger Sanction is a wry, self-aware, action/adventure story, a spy novel which simultaneously holds its own with the best of the genre while rigorously spoofing its conventions. It is truly a damned shame that nobody reads Trevanian anymore (the copy of The Eiger Sanction that I read was literally the only copy available from both the sprawling City of Los Angeles Public Library system and the County of Los Angeles Public Library system). One can only hope that the release of Satori, Don Winslow's prequel to Trevanian's Shibumi, in March will also see the reissue--and reintroduction to the reading public's eye--of Trevanian's backlist.