Desmond Skirrow

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Desmond Skirrow (1923 or 1924–1976) was a British advertising executive and thriller writer. Born in Wales, he was a painter, designer, journalist, and a creative director for ad agencies.[1] In the late 1960s he wrote three somewhat tongue-in-cheek spy novels about a fictional British agent named John Brock of which the New York Times said, "There's plenty of action and the plotting is ingenious and inventive; but the real delight of the book(s) is the quirky narrative."[2]

Like his creator, the fictional Brock works in advertising in London, but is also an unlikely part-time agent for an undercover department on the Addison Road run by the fat man. The three novels are tough, irreverent, witty, and highly improbable. Even for a hardened veteran of World War II bolstered by special training, Brock is improbably competent, violent, and resilient from one vicious beating after another. The first-person narrator of his adventures, he is mostly a man of action but can also wax lyrical about the beauties of the Cotswolds, where he has a secret cottage, and is always sardonic in his observations about advertising agencies and their goals. "They are great carpeted palaces of little problems and big solutions, filled with loose minds in tight dresses."[3]

Skirrow was a master of rather light-hearted, Chandleresque prose, with such phrases as "she dealt me into Schneider's presence like a hand of aces,"[4] and, in describing a club in Brighton:

Behind the rosy little bar was a girl with breasts like zeppelins.... The zeppelins swept the room. They pointed at Provis and quivered to rest. Provis was standing against the bar like a mooring-mast. "Will your friend have the same?" she said. "Or something special?"[5]

Skirrow's books share a narrative quirk with at least some of Kurt Vonnegut's novels:[6] every piece of dialog always has a "he said" or "she said" in it, even in extended conversations between two people where it is obvious to the reader who is speaking:

"Ignore him," I said. "Who else?"

"Everybody," she said.

"Everybody?" I said.[7]

Skirrow also wrote another novel, Poor Quail, about an advertising executive's move to the countryside, that apparently is not about his secret agent. About it, an online bookseller says, "Disillusioned by his advertising career and yearning for independence, a man moves into a remote rural area where he must soon deal with his wife's increasing dissatisfaction with the countryside to which she had previously been eager to move."[8]

Punch called the John Brock books "the Chandler formula, basically, but louder and funnier," while a critic for the Sunday Express wrote that "When I opened his first novel, a thriller, I got the impression that the late Raymond Chandler had come back to life, reanimated perhaps by some of the crude vitality of Mr Mickey Spillane." The Guardian said about his next book that it was "Much better written than much of the turgid solemnity that passes for serious fiction. Neat, sharp, well observed, and extremely funny."[9]

Skirrow also wrote a bit of verse, "Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized", that is included in the New Oxford Book of Light Verse:[10]

Gods chase
Round vase.
What say?
What play?
Don't know.
Nice, though.

He was, apparently, the Creative Director at a major London advertising agency, Masius Wynne-Williams, when he died prematurely at age 52 or 53.



  1. Crime Fiction 1749-1980: A Comprehensive Bibliography, by Allen J. Hubin, Garland Publishing, New York, 1984, page 370
  2. Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large", New York Times, February 11, 1968, at [1]
  3. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 2
  4. ibid., page 23
  5. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, page 157
  6. ie., Mother Night
  7. ibid., page 149
  8. Augustine Funnell Books, Fredericton, Canada, at [2]
  9. All critical quotations from the back dust jacket of I'm Trying to Give It up, The Bodley Head, London, 1968
  10. New Oxford Book of Light Verse, edited by Kingsley Amis, Oxford University Press, 1987

See also