Off the Shelf: A rose is a man is a rose: Adrian Dannatt on Wendy Walker's The Secret Service

THAT A LATE 20th-century literary masterpiece should slip by unheralded, hardly available, is commonplace. The status of Wendy Walker's The Secret Service is recognised by its American publishers, Sun & Moon, who have issued it in their 'Classics' series, but sadly it remains extremely hard to find in the States, let alone elsewhere.

Set in a 19th-century Europe that does not quite obey the contours of the real place, the story concerns a dastardly plot against the British royal family, led by three scheming continental notables. These three, a German, an Italian and a Frenchman, are also obsessive collectors, aesthetes dedicated to their respective fields of expertise: roses, rare tableware, classical statuary.

In order to infiltrate the enemy, the British secret service have developed a remarkable weapon. By scientific methods they can transform their agents into physical objects, indistinguishable from the real thing. Thus the British spies can turn themselves into a rare perfect rose, a superb antique glass or a Roman sculpture, and observe the villains from very close quarters. This transformation operates as far more than just a gimmick. Rather, Walker uses it as a far reaching, exhaustive metaphor for the nature of being human, and as a generator of exceptional language.

The book begins with a ceremonial banquet for the marriage of the young king and queen, to which the three villains have been expressly invited in order to be seduced by the beautiful objects before them, little realising they are all in fact human spies. The table is covered by the entire British secret service masquerading as a tumbler, plate or vase, all straining to catch the attention of the enemy and be taken home to their collections.

The result is like a fin de siecle Ruritanian adventure re-written by Gertrude Stein and Ronald Firbank. We read detailed descriptions not only of what it is like to be a rose, but also, for example the dream of a rose, what passes through a rose while it sleeps, from the point of view of the flower itself.

And The Secret Service, despite its historic setting, has become curiously topical. The plot to overthrow the institution of British monarchy by introducing marital scandal into its ranks, has recently become more vivid a notion than Walker could ever haye imagined.

But in an even more extraordinary example of life, or technology catching up with imagination, what would previously have been the most unfilmable of books, has become a highly feasible movie project. For the proccess of 'morphing', seen at its most advanced in Terminator 2, reproduces on screen exactly what Walker describes, the transformation of humans into physical objects and back again. The Secret Service is the first masterpiece of the age of morphing.