An unusual novel with a fascinating premise, The Life Assistance Agency offers a twist on the traditional private eye tale.
Protagonist Ben Ferguson-Cripps is getting few sales on his book, Mirrors and Lies, which provides a highly skeptical view on the spiritualism that captivated his mother. In an attempt to get his life back on track he joins former colleague Scott Wildblood (this novel merits a reading just from the names alone) a the Life Assistance Agency, an all purpose racket supporting everything from standard detection to swimming lessons and even bonsai trimming. His first case is a missing lecturer. The simple premise quickly escalates, as sinister forces appear to stalk both the missing man and the highly inexperienced agents seeking him, as the case eventually takes an alarmingly personal turn for the cynical Ferguson-Cripps.
Incorporating the real life astronomer and philosopher John Dee, his friend and fellow angel contactor Edward Kelley and the tale of the wife swap they engage in at the behest of their angelic correspondents into the novel offers a great opportunity to explore this bizarre real life story. The use of John’s wife Jane’s fictionalized diaries offers a different perspective that is a great contrast to Ben’s dour, modern voice, which acts as the first person narrative throughout the rest of the book. Jane is portrayed as a smart, educated woman with a healthy skepticism of her both husband’s endeavors and friend. The diary entries are perfectly interspersed with the main plot, which sees the protagonists engage in a slightly farcical chase around Europe after their missing lecturer.
The one unusual occurrence in the novel, stranger even than the apparitions and angels in the plot, is the constant reference to spaniels. The opening chapters are awash with similes and metaphors about them, despite the fact that no dogs of any kind actually feature in the book itself, apart from brief references. Author Thomas Hocknell describes himself as being ‘brought up by Springer spaniels’, which perhaps goes some way to explaining it, but still despite being highly unobservant when thoroughly absorbed in a book as I was in this case, even I couldn’t fail to spot the overuse of this particular, unnecessary trope.
Overall what really impresses me about The Life Assistance Agency is the fact that, despite the strong emphasis on angels, this is fundamentally a detective novel with Ben and Scott’s quest for answers being the primary focus at all times. A compelling and exciting read, this is worth a look for those searching for something a little bit different from which to get their crime fiction fix. Like a cross between Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and a real old-school crime novel, this book is witty, quick and tantalising, and I personally believe that it is just the thing to invigorate a genre which all too often relies on tired, recycled tropes and narrative devices.