A new book exposing the mysterious multiple lives of a secret agent and spy fiction writer of the early 20th century was launched this week in the prestigious New Media Building at Goldsmiths College in New Cross.
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent: the mysterious life and times of Alexander Wilson is the culmination of five years of investigation and research by award-winning journalist and senior Goldsmiths academic Tim Crook.
The trail started with a casual request for help with some family research by actor Mike Shannon, who was trying to find out more about a father he’d last seen, aged seven, at the railway station as he left for the front in his colonel’s uniform in 1941, only later to be told he had been killed at El Alamein in 1942. All he had of his father, Alexander Wilson, was a photograph album and a novel he had written.
And thus Tim Crook embarked on what he describes as his own secret “mission – a mission without end” where he was instructed to “rattle every skeleton in the cupboard”.
And so began a remarkable Odyssey. The ensuing investigation would uncover an extraordinary family history as well as the enigmatic profile of a man who was a much-acclaimed spy novelist throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and yet published nothing after 1940 – but not, as Tim Crook discovered, because he was dead. Far from it: by 1942, Alexander Wilson was living with a new wife and young family in the Kensington area, and working for the Secret Intelligence Services – a career which, through various twists and turns, would take him to the New Delhi offices of British intelligence in India and into the field.
His fictions, it turned out, were not simply confined to the pages of his books. Little by little, through Freedom of Information requests, poring over old registers and directories, he was able, with the help of Alexander Wilson’s surviving children, to piece the story together. Alexander Wilson’s extraordinary career included working as as intelligence officer, writer and father of what turned out to be four parallel families. Trying to unpick what was real and what was an always meticulously-constructed cover story, Crook was hampered at every turn by the fact that the British secret services had attempted to blot out all records of him.
At the core of the story, Tim Crook writes at the end of the book, ‘”was the paradox that if Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson were also Alexander Gordon Chesney Wilson, in the living of two identities in two lives, how could the people who knew and loved him ever be certain of whence he came, who he was or, in fact, anything about him?”
However, according to Tim Crook, this is also an opportunity to rediscover Alexander Wilson as an author. The writer of hugely popular spy books such as Wallace Intervenes and The Crimson Dacoit was, Crook argues, ahead of his time in his depiction of women, for example, and in his perception of the threat posed to Britain by the Comintern, by growing Japanese military and intelligence prowess and by the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Mr Justice, published in 1937, is for Tim Crook “one of the most brilliantly plotted thrillers of the 20th century that packs a major political punch on the ethics of economic justice”.
Alexander Wilson was also perhaps the first spy writer to fictionalise the then head of MI6, Mansfield Smith-Cumming in his depiction of ‘C’, Sir Leonard Wallace, who appears in his books. His books also make a signicant contribution, says Tim Crook, to the Anglo-Indian history of that period. What also emerges in this fascinating tale of double lives, of insights into the shadowy world of the intelligence services, of patriotism and empire, is a very human, even tragic story.
At the end of the book, Tim Crook quotes that other secret agent-turned-author, John le Carre, whose character George Smiley tells his trainee spies: “‘By being all things to all spies, one does rather run the risk becoming nothing to oneself,’ he confessed sadly. “Please don’t imagine you’ll be unscathed by the methods you use. The end may justify the means – if it wasn’t supposed to, I dare say you wouldn’t be here. But there’s a price to pay, and the price does tend to be oneself. Easy to sell one’s soul at your age. Harder later’.”
Or as Tim Crook put it, Wilson found himself playing in two or three productions, unable to wipe off the mask, unable to leave the dressing room. Was it all real or fictional for him? Nonetheless, other than the book itself, which many members of Wilson’s surviving family came to see launched, there was an enduring legacy for good from the investigation, in that Mike Shannon, who had always imagined himself an only child, and Wilson’s other children, were thrilled to find each other through the process and to recover a shared, lost past and a sense of their own history and brought them a great deal of joy and closure.
As Tim Crook told East London Lines: “All his children and grandchildren have a family heritage, an ancestor of whom they can be enormously proud and they can also judge incredibly harshly ethically, philosophically – that’s paradoxical, but it’s also true of most people’s lives. We all edit how we represent ourselves.” He compares Wilson to a Shakespearean tragic hero – flawed, brilliant, beautiful and ugly all at once.
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent by Tim Crook is published by Kultura Press, price £24.99. To order a copy click here.
To hear Tim Crook talk about some of the ethical and philosophical issues raised by his research, click on the link below.