The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook
I very much wanted to enjoy reading this book, when I realised who the subject was, but by the time I’d finished it, I couldn’t feel disposed to give it a fully positive review. The subject was the inspiration for a recent television drama, called Mrs Wilson, and the main character was the subject’s third wife, Alison, and she was played by her own granddaughter, the versatile Ruth Wilson. Her grandfather went by various names, but his first given name and family name were Alexander Wilson. The author is careful to be even-handed about his assessment of the subject, given that it was written at the instigation of one of his sons, Mike Shannon, now deceased, but it is abundantly clear that Alex was a deceitful fantasist, who married four women, three bigamously, and fathered many children as a result; the latter is hardly surprising, given that he was Roman Catholic, but one wonders how his religious faith could accommodate the former. He did some work for the British Secret Intelligence Service, but he also elaborated on it excessively, and wore military uniforms to which he was not entitled. This is a fascinating story but, for me, this second edition is let down by repetition, some odd phraseology, and poor presentation: if those don’t deter you, it’s worth a read. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Kultura Press, ISBN 978-1-9088-4206-0.
England’s Finest, by Christopher Fowler
This is the second collection of short stories by this author, twelve in all, featuring the “decrepit duo” of Bryant & May [although that does seem a little unfair in John May’s case] and most of them are around 23 pages long; one, however, has an uncharacteristically fumbled ending: in this case, clarity was sacrificed for the sake of brevity IMO, but one is significantly longer than the rest, at 54 pages, described by Fowler as “very much the centrepiece of the book”. Not all are set in the present, which is quite refreshing, and there is a synopsis of each story at the back, including background information; this is only one of the extra features, almost in the style of a probably soon to be defunct DVD [how times change!], including A Brief History of the Peculiar Crimes Unit*, Dramatis Personae, Private & Confidential Memo from Raymond Land, A Note from Mr Bryant’s biographer*, Author’s Notes on the cases, and Murder on My Mind: an Afterword. *which might or might not be true. The final extra item is very informative, because it includes details of the author’s background, and his rationale for working the way he does. Overall, I found this a very enjoyable addition to the B&M canon: easily absorbed, with plenty of variety, albeit centred on the real London, to keep the reader interested. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Penguin/Bantam, London [2019, Transworld Publishers, London], ISBN 978-0-8575-0409-8.
Firewatching, by Russ Thomas
This is the first novel by this author; a second one, again with a 1-word, present continuous tense title [Nighthawking] should have been published in February 2021; and after a beginning in which I wondered in which direction the narrative was going, apart from one minor slip when he uses discomfort a couple of times as a verb, when he should use discomfit, it settled down into a good police procedural, which concentrates on the main characters as much as it does the action. The protagonist is Adam Tyler [Life on Mars, anyone? Although this is set in & around Sheffield, not Manchester, and present day], a Detective Sergeant who happens to be gay, and on this particular case, he allows himself to be compromised by having a liaison with a young man who turns out to be a suspect; to his amazement, he is allowed by his superior, a gruff Inspector, to stay on the case, and the reason for this is that the latter was a devoted colleague of Tyler’s now deceased father, also a police officer. There is plenty of submerged guilt & hidden resentments in evidence to the reader, following the discovery of a body walled up in the cellar of an ex-vicarage, and what are the two dotty old ladies, one of whom seems to be in the early stages of dementia, who live in an adjacent property, hiding? The tension is maintained until the end, with the unsuspected pyromaniac only being revealed when all seems lost for one of the characters. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4711-8095-8.
The Angels of Venice, by Philip Gwynne Jones
This novel meanders as slowly and languidly as the Grand Canal in Venice, around which the action is set. It is the seventh in this series set there, and featuring the honorary British Consul, Nathan Sutherland, who is married to a local woman, and has been resident there for several years, as has the author. The plot starts with the death of an English woman during a real event, the catastrophic flood, or Acqua alta; high water; as it is known there, which occurred in November 2019. It is not within Sutherland’s specific remit to investigate the event but, of course, he does, albeit slowly and, for the most part, carefully. The woman was employed by a rich English philanthropist, but questions begin to be asked about his integrity, and that of his foundation, named after his father; also, the bookseller, in whose shop the woman spent a lot of time, and to whom she might have been closer than her apparently feckless English fiancé would like, seems increasingly suspect. When a potentially extremely valuable, original Dürer cartoon is thrown into the mix, the plot starts to crystallise for Sutherland. There are a few other interesting characters in the dramatis personae, including a young woman nicknamed Siouxsie Sioux by Sutherland, on account of her appearance: she is one of the so-called Mud Angels, who voluntarily assist the cleanup operation after the inundation. The partial map at the front helped with geography, and the glossary at the back helped with the local argot. Worth a read, and I will look out for other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2023  by Constable, London, ISBN 978-1-4721-3431-8.