The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

In the warm months of July and August I go off my diet of literary fiction and academic nonfiction and escape into my favorite pastime: summer reading. From May through September, one can see summer books in artful window displays in Main Street bookstores, on lawn chairs and colorful beach towels often flipped over with their pages fanning in a downward direction. Some can be spied poking out of a tote bag on a bus or train with just a hint of their titles showing. Some have their pages dogeared purposely to hold the reader’s place while their owner takes a reading break to splash in the pool, the ocean or other inland waters.

Novels filled with adventure, thrills, romance, mystery or history, which is a particular favorite of mine. Historical fiction hooked me into reading at a young age and today I am still drawn to this genre about people and places from eras gone by, some from the distant past to others at an even closer time that I can recall with a certain nostalgia because I was there somewhere. Somehow. Of course, not in the novel but existing in the real world as a younger version of myself, living and working and finding adventure on a much smaller scale.

I recently had the pleasure to read Bill Lockwood’s latest historical novel, The Monsignor’s Agents (The Wild Rose Press, 2020). Lockwood’s novel is filled with all those elements that I love: adventure, intrigue, danger, romance, and that recent historical context that made me think about where I was and what I was doing when Lockwood’s characters went about their bookish business of capturing my attention and literally traveling with me as I, myself, went about my summer business from place to place hoping for fifteen minutes here or there of stolen reading time so that I could catch up with my new summer friends. I spent a wonderful two weeks with Lockwood’s characters. Full disclosure: this is not my first Lockwood novel. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to see all his hallmarks in his latest work.

The setting of The Monsignor’s Agents takes place in two locations: Rome and on the island of Malta, located off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, in 1983, which I thought very interesting. The 1980s were more than crazy hair and clothes and the birth of MTV. They were a very political time in the world and in the Catholic Church as well. In the novel, Lockwood puts a spotlight on the Vatican and Pope John Paul II with speculation of a possible third assassination attempt brewing, and he does this beautifully using television news as a delivery vehicle, showing and not simply telling the reader. Lockwood does this right out of the gate in the first line:

Alison flipped on the TV while she waited for her morning coffee to brew. “May 1, 1983,” the announcer gave the date in Italian at the start of the local newscast for Rome.

Indeed, Lockwood clearly and succinctly orients the reader to the big picture while introducing his main character, Alison, a 27-year-old army intelligence officer stationed in Rome. The reader soon learns Alison’s role. Great writing here and throughout. Lockwood’s story is full of details and character movement.

He also adds a History and Author’s Notes in the beginning pages of his novel that supply some details and explanations of the numerous historical references peppered throughout the story that once more grounds the reader, gives authority to his characters, and also provides context to the exotic locations where the story takes place.

In this regard, authority is further heightened because the setting details are equally important to the plot. In the third chapter, Lockwood blends Alison with the setting in a historically evocative manner:

She had dressed European as cover, to blend in. The light summer dress she wore had, like the little island, a mix of European and Mediterranean cultures. The dress was thin to make her feel cool in the African heat and European in style to show she hadn’t worn a bra. Neither had she worn any jewelry except for a simple watch on her wrist. The guidebook had said that in the eighteenth century young girls in Maltese society were given simple coral necklaces believed to ward off evil. She was trusting in her training and experience to take care of that.

Alison’s character is reminiscent of a time when women were just beginning to break the gender barrier, particularly in the armed forces. Alison refers several times to the famed World War I spy, Mata Hari, who was a double agent spying on the French and Germans and ultimately died violently by a firing squad. Hari used her sexuality to get the job done and while that may have been true to history and the time, it made me pause. In a time of the women’s movement, Me Too, a heightened political climate and social awareness, to read about Alison using her sexuality in a flippant, provocative manner stopped me. It was unexpected and I had a moment of dislike for Lockwood’s character.

However, I recalled that 1980s pop culture was indeed graphic in terms of violence and sex, and women were commonly objectified by men as well as by themselves and had been for centuries. This is why historical female spies like Hari were able to stay under the radar of suspicion. I got that. This notion gave way to another thought. Perhaps Lockwood was showing the gender disparity of then and now in a micro-social commentary through his characters. How different they are to their modern contemporaries. Less serious, for sure. Playful. These qualities attracted me to them in the first place. My new summer besties. People whom I would invite to my house for a barbecue and cocktails had they been flesh and bone.

Returning to the other characters, overall they were very round and robust, charming, funny, and surprising, too. I liked them all, particularly Max, who I suspect may be a favorite of Bill’s. Max is a character I had met in a previous Lockwood novel and was delighted to be reacquainted with. Max and Alison’s points of view are the main plot vehicle as Lockwood switches between them in his linear narrative.

The novel builds to an exciting moment where the reader may guess what is about to happen but doesn’t know for sure, mirroring the character’s exact same sentiment. It’s a true page-turner followed by a traditional and quick falling action and character wrap up.


Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. Currently he writes articles on the arts and interesting people for the weekly Shopper/Vermont Journal and the daily Eagle Times. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood published his second novel, Megan of the Mists, in 2017, and third, Ms. Anna, in 2018. He has five published short stories. His short story “The Kids Won’t Leave” is scheduled to appear in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, the literary journal of Antioch University, Los Angeles. Bill lives in Vermont.


Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]

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