One has to admire a novel as perversely uncommercial as THE SECRET SERVICE. Written, reportedly, over a fifteen year period by Wendy Walker (THE SEA-RABBIT), it’s an ersatz espionage thriller, set in an alternate-universe 18th century milieu in which the British Secret Service employs its agents to pose as inanimate objects. Such a conception obviously negates any hope of conventional action or sensationalism, and further diluting any commercial prospects is the ultra-refined, description-heavy prose. There’s also a novella-length hallucinatory segue that occurs in the middle of the book that stymies the narrative flow considerably. Yet the book’s imaginative richness, which is sustained throughout its entire 459 page length, is undeniable. THE SECRET SERVICE may not be an easy read, but it is a one-of-a-kind standout.
The protagonist is Polly, a naïve secret service agent who poses as a bejeweled goblet. This she does in order to spy on a Paris based Italian cardinal who is part of a complex plot to disgrace England’s rulers. In goblet form Polly is afforded a uniquely panoramic three hundred sixty degree view of reality, and also the ability to communicate with the soul of a nearby cup—which is mighty unquiet due to the fact that it was made from the bones of dead infants. A fellow agent, meanwhile, takes the form of a rose, which allows him to experience the sensations of being planted and watered, and comes in mighty handy when Polly, in goblet form, is knocked off a table and broken, thus requiring a rescue mission.
The bizarre particulars of the transformation of humans into objects are, like everything else in this novel, minutely described, complete with a highly involved alchemical formula. Of a similarly odd hue is Polly’s subconscious struggle to regain her equilibrium after her goblet-self is broken, which takes the form of a lengthy odyssey in a hallucinatory landscape wherein people and objects constantly metamorphose and a magical goblet, much like the one whose guise Polly has assumed, features prominently.
Other delightfully outré elements include the revelation of the full scope of the cardinal’s plot against England, which turns out to be insanely wild and byzantine, and what occurs when one of the plotters finds out about the human/object ruse, which leads to a mighty gruesome climax. Getting to that point takes patience, but I feel the novel’s energy and invention are reward enough.