Book Review: The Crown Agent by Stephen O’Rourke.

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[The following contains spoilers.]

Stephen O’Rourke QC is a big bug in the ointment of Edinburgh’s legal profession. He has practised both criminal and civil law for years now in this city, to much acclaim. A big man naturally needs a hobby of like proportions and, during O’Rourke’s moments of downtime, he has directed his titanic organisational energies into becoming a popular novelist.

The Crown Agent was published by Sandstone Press last November. It begins in Edinburgh in the aftermath of William Burke’s execution in 1829. Burke and his business partner William Hare had murdered sixteen of Edinburgh’s citizens and sold their bodies to the anatomical lecturer Robert Knox for public dissection. Doctor Lyon, our hero, had had a seat at Knox’s table and, by the time that we meet him, his surgeon’s license has been revoked. Forlorn and underemployed, and yet resourceful and patriotic, Doctor Lyon is himself, in the eyes of the Crown’s attentive spymasters [*], a splendid body that happens to be going spare.

As a historical novel, The Crown Agent is ambitious and likeable, but in truth it lies always on the fair side of amateurishness. O’Rourke betrays a lack of writerly confidence in his reluctance to allow the reader to simply live in the novel and to drift around it freely. The story opens with a missive arriving from the Lord Advocate, which occasions an explanatory, “What could Scotland’s most senior government minister possibly want with me?” During the following adventure, Doctor Lyon will be so regaled with similar basic information that it is almost as if he is somehow trapped in a never-ending guided tour of his own society. Many of the sentences in this novel could end with, “but you would know this, Doctor Lyon.”

There is a crisis to this kind of writing, namely that it is not certain who it is being addressed to. Scottish readers will hardly need to be told that Leith “is the port of Edinburgh,” whereas some international readers might be at a disadvantage without this gen. Perhaps the problem is indeed one of extending too indiscriminate a welcome. The novel comes to patronise those history lovers who would be otherwise most likely to enjoy its story, whilst volunteering to educate general readers who would be better swatting up on the nineteenth century elsewhere. Often O’Rourke is attempting to dissolve the bite-sized chunks of his history lesson in the broth of casual conversation:

‘Certainly,’ he replied, his face growing suddenly dark, ‘and anywhere else I can condemn these new tax burdens that ports like Greenock have to bear. Is it any wonder we lost the Americas?’

O’Rourke is never happier than when Doctor Lyon is waltzing into a whisky distillery, or learning about land titles on the west coast, and we get to dive into this period detail. The Crown Agent has apparently existed in one form or another since 2012 and most of its development had doubtless comprised historical research. But if the novel engineers a spotless verisimilitude here, then this always stands strangely independent from any deeper, psychological realism. The resultant effect is akin to that of a historical drama for television in which the bare scenery more looks substantial and true-to-life than the wispy characters who flit through it.

Still, as I have indicated, there is enough interest in this novel to place it in the fair side of the weeds. O’Rourke claims to “acknowledge the influence of John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson.” The early chase scenes in The Crown Agent, en route to the west coast of Scotland, certainly recall the pattern of the action within Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).  We are back in a familiar world of classic children’s adventure novels, where devastating flesh wounds are bandaged up and promptly forgotten about and flagging spirits are revived with draughts of brandy.

The true point of departure, though, is clearly the novels of Ian Fleming. The most rudimentary synopsis of The Crown Agent is that James Bond has been beamed into the nineteenth-century, where he assimilates and flourishes. After Doctor Lyon winds up in Jamaica during the climax of his story, it feels as if he has been all this time on an unconscious pilgrimage to Goldeneye, the Jamaican estate where Fleming had written the Bond novels.     

When O’Rourke is squaring up to Fleming’s hero, his own Doctor Lyon grows particularly sticky with autobiographical juices. When Doctor Lyon is scolded that espionage is “no place for amateurs,” we will think of an amateur novelist who is trying his hand at spy fiction. Alternatively, when Doctor Lyon proves his mettle as a consummate crime-buster, we will be reminded that O’Rourke, in the words of The Legal 500, ‘maintains a cool head under pressure and is extremely diligent’. In reality, O’Rourke can never achieve a vivid impression of Doctor Lyon because this character has been too overloaded with different functions. He is both hapless and resourceful, both loyal in his gut to the British state and restlessly anti-establishment:

After all, it wasn’t so many years since many of my clan rose with the Young Pretender only to face the horror of Culloden Moor. The Crown wasn’t always right or just. The Lord Advocate saw loyalty in me, he said. But could I, or any man, be always loyal to the Crown and do its bidding, no matter what the cost?

We become most conscious of Doctor Lyon when he is doing things that Bond would never dream of doing. He quaffs a dram of whisky at the Anchor Inn and, appallingly, as the whole establishment watches, he dissolves into “a fit of coughing.”  This is hardly 007 with a vodka martini in his vicelike grip. Later, Doctor Lyon is complaining that he is “tired.” There is also the signal hilarity of our medical 007 pausing his adventure to battle with “acute appendicitis” and in being in a dramatic countdown to defuse this intestinal timebomb.

The ladies are unusually quiet for Bond girls. Margaret, Doctor Lyon’s faithful disabled sister and a technical wiz, is stuck back at the base, rather like Q, throughout the adventure. We only meet Fiona, the love item, once and we only meet her briefly, before she is herself wheeled in for the climax. The Bond violence is, however, instantly recognisable:

A look of confusion came over his face, only to be replaced with terror as he realised the only thing holding him up was my left hand… I can’t begin to imagine the horror of that death as he twisted and sank, every inch of his body burning, his lungs, nose, eyes and ears filling with molten sugar. But hard as it is, I can’t say I pitied him.

This is admittedly missing the twinkly-eyed quip (“revenge is sweet” etc.) The Crown Agent adheres to the 007 clichés even when they would make more visual sense in a movie than they do any logical sense in a novel. Why, for example, do the villains decide upon the mad spectacle of chasing Doctor Lyon, all guns blazing, through a working pottery? And when the Bond adventure is behaving itself, it is Doctor Lyon who is letting the clichés down, with a shrillness and a scandalised squealing that had been bred completely out of Bond. A malfunction of this story is that after Doctor Lyon has been captured, we are bound to take a great deal of enjoyment in the idea of such a shrill character being forced to labour in a sugar plantation.

How could a white, middle-class doctor ever be inconspicuously included in a black slave workforce? This story sinks into such a delirium that we might start to eye up Doctor Lyon as being an unreliable narrator. We might decide that he is a stock character, the fibber who arrived back fresh from some colonial flop with a jaw wedged full of self-aggrandising, totally unverifiable yarns.

Self-aggrandising. One looking at Jamaica in 1831 might regard the leaders of the slave rebellion as being the heroes. Instead, Doctor Lyon reduces the slaves to standing passively in fields; he transforms the rebellion from an act of black power into one of white, aristocratic skulduggery; and he naturally puts forward himself, an elite adventurer, as the most heroic and progressive actor in the story. He is as much at odds with the slave rebellion here as Bond was with the heroism of his own period’s welfare state.

Self-aggrandising. Doctor Lyon’s narrative assures us that William Hare is no longer a murderer who he had collaborated with, along with the rest of his disgraced class, but a guardian angel of the British Empire. If this is unreliable narration, then the guilt of the Burke scandal weighs heavily upon it. For example, Doctor Lyon is joined in his adventure by one potentially treacherous Commander Birkmyre, whose name echoes with the words “burke me” [after “burking,” the term given to Burke’s special method of asphyxiation]. There is also Doctor Lyon’s preposterous inability to ever remember or mention Knox, his mentor, even in passing.     

Hare is nonetheless a haunting figure throughout this novel. Far from offering an additional, cheap, ghoulish thrill, he is always frozen at the dead centre of the story. His disappearance after Burke’s trial, with him vanishing in triumph like James Hogg’s demon Gil-Martin, has become the most beautiful gift for writers of speculative history. In The Crown Agent, Hare exploits the ubiquity and supposedly nondescript appearance of Irish navvies to escape recognition everywhere he goes. He operates under the not-at-all-suggestive incognito of “Jack Dervil.”

Hare’s is the only human face to stare out of this novel because he cannot be categorised alongside either the flimsily good or wicked characters (Alba, the villainous upstart accidentally shares a name with Alex Salmond’s new political party). Hare is a totally amoral figure, who only numbers amongst the good because he has fallen under the administrative control of the British state. The Jamaican rebellion conceivably fails for the sole reason that he has calculated, once again, that he is better off siding with the King.

A consequence of this is that some of Hare’s own hairs rub off on the Crown’s agent. When Doctor Lyon kills a guard during his and Hare’s escape, he admits to experiencing “elation.” Hare’s retort is that, “‘I knew ye had it in ye’.” There is a frank realism to the killing of this guard that momentarily jolts The Crown Agent out of its adopted machinery of the Bond novel.   

Is it that Doctor Lyon and Hare are lately the new Burke and Hare? This can hardly be the case because, unlike with Burke, Hare proves extravagantly loyal to Doctor Lyon, stepping forward to mount an audacious rescue when it would be much easier for him to melt silently back amongst Scotland’s itinerant Ulstermen. The disconcerting paradox is that Hare is the only realistic character in this story because he is a passive, a kind of non-person, and his individuality has been assigned no inherent meaning. If any man in this Jamaican colonial adventure is technically a slave, it is Hare, and the sugar of the story’s sweet ending is largely the result of his exploited labour.

 

[*An earlier draught had absent-mindedly implied that Queen Victoria was the monarch in 1829. Apologies for this howler.]