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Second paragraph of third chapter:
There was also a Professor of English Literature on board with the address, The Buyngalow, Colbury, Southampton. His name was Alexander Wilson. He had just turned 32. The single-funnelled City of nagpur with its red and black livery had a passenger list of 34 men and 55 women who in the quaint language of the time were 'not accompanied by husband or wife.'
Last year we were hugely entertained by the TV series Mrs Wilson, based on the same history as this book. Here's the trailer for it.
The story is one of fundamental deceit; Alexander Wilson had four wives at the same time, and children with each of them, but managed to keep this more or less secret from all concerned. He was a British spy, and published author of a score of spy novels, but got sacked from the secret service in murky circumstances. He died suddenly in his third wife's home in 1963; it was not until 2007 that his various families found out about each other, largely thanks to the writer of this book, who is a professor of media studies at Goldsmiths in London.

The story is a fascinating one. Wilson managed to lead parallel lives for decades. His first two wives did at least realise that their relationships were over (divorce, however, was not an option); but the third and fourth wives were living not far apart, and Wilson managed to flit between households without being found out. He was in love with all of the women he married, and loved his children by their account, though he ran out of money pretty fast due to not having a job and indeed served prison time for small-scale financial fiddling. His habitual fantasising in real life clearly also fed into his writing, which was reasonably successful in the 1930s - he published 24 books between 1928 and 1940. I was rather reminded of Patrick Troughton, also a man of simultaneous relationships, who was a professional pretender by trade (also felled by a heart attack in his 60s). Troughton at least seems to have been more honest with his wives and girlfriends about his emotional commitments.

This extraordinary sequence of events is not served well by Crook. Rather than take us through Wilson's life chronologically, he has instead taken each of the women's stories and recounted them in separate chapters, in reminiscence style, followed by two chapters each on his secret service career and his literary career. This means that we are jerked about the timeline mercilessly. It would have been very interesting to match the chronology of Wilson's books directly with the documentary evidence about his second marriage, and essential to match the records of his petty crime convictions against the memories of his third wife. But the sources are treated as separate boxes telling separate stories, rather as Wilson in life kept his families from knowing about each other. The style is breathless and unreflective.

There are some annoying formatting issues as well - the entire book is in plain text with, for instance, extended extracts from Wilson's novels formatted exactly the same as the rest of the book; there are a decent number of photographs, all shoved at the end in apparently random order. It is a rare case where the fictionalised screen version, which stars Wilson's granddaughter as her own grandmother, does the facts more justice than this non-fiction version. I found the book surprisingly poor for an author who holds a professorship in journalism. It reads more like a sequence of newspaper feature articles stitched together. Maybe that's what it originally was. Anyway, you can get it here.

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