Dwarfish Charlie Boylan carries a loaded pistol into the House of Commons. A can of worms waiting to be opened, he was a police spy for nearly forty years. He wants a pension and what he knows will get it! Did he, between Waterloo and Wellington's funeral, cause the Peterloo riot to happen? Was it Charlie who fingered the Cato Street Conspirators? Did Shelley really drown by accident? And at the opening of the Great Exhibition was it he who saved the Queen from being blown up?
With dark undertones in its revelations of the orchestrated state repression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, A Very English Agent drives a horse, well, a donkey and cart, through the early years of the nineteenth century in a rumbustious, funny, sexy, teeming novel, worthy of the times it describes.
A work of literary devilry, this latest political thriller by veteran Rathbone (The Last English King, etc.) is the tale of Charlie Boylan, a dwarf who claims to have been agent 003 for the English government in the 19th century. Using multiple points of view and a number of literary devices (sometimes the story is told from Charlie's written accounts, other times from characters' direct consciousness) the novel follows Boylan's attempts to establish the legitimacy of his claims in order to secure a "modest pension" from the government. According to his account, he was hired by the government to assassinate would-be revolutionaries, including orchestrating the drowning of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Boylan's detailed recollections of living in Italy with Mary and Percy Shelley in the role of a deaf-mute he arrives during one of Mary Shelley's near-fatal miscarriages and helps Shelley come up with rhymes for Percy's "The Triumph of Life" count as dramatic and comic highlights in a book with many such moments. Rathbone is a writer of considerable skill and insight, combining the sardonic wit of Flann O'Brien with the multilayered trickery of Nabokov. Meticulous in its historical references, the book refers to the advent of "a new system of deferred payment" (credit), public lavatories and the bowler hat. The central question of the novel, however, remains the most intriguing: Are the would-be 003's accounts real, or the product of Charlie's desire for money? The reader is left with more questions than answers. But then, sorting fact from fantasy in this book is half the fun.