This is the third book in The Agency series and perhaps the best book so far.
(Please note that as this is the third book in the series, there are potential spoilers for those of you who have yet to read the first two books! You have been warned!! ;p )
It feels like somehow everything blossomed in this one. The romance, her role in The Agency, the storytelling, the flow of the plot. It seems to have come into its own.
Mary Quinn is finally a full-fledged member of The Agency, a women-only detective agency (this is Victorian England so it is rather rare). But her first case hardly justifies her new role. She’s undercover at Buckingham Palace, working as a maid in Queen Victoria’s household to figure out who’s been stealing from the palace. Little things, not very exciting, at least not for Mary Quinn.
But it just so happens that the young Prince of Wales is witness to a murder in a seedy opium den. The accused is an opium addict, a Lascar, that is, an Asian sailor. More specifically, a Chinese man. And more significantly for Mary, a Chinese man with the same name as her long lost father.
Mary Quinn is forced to confront her half-Chinese background, instead of hiding it in the background as she used to.
“Mary stopped, drew a steadying breath, and resolved to do only what was necessary on this case without letting her emotions overtake her. To solve the mysterious thefts from the palace. To do all she could for Lang, while preserving her distance. And, most important, to keep her mixed-race parentage a secret. It was too complicated. Certain to mark her out as different. Foreign. Tainted. It was a hindrance and a handicap, when all she wanted was to blend in — with the outside world, but especially here.”
She has understandably been reluctant to reveal this side of her. Partly because of the political situation, partly because of how Asians (and those of mixed race) were perceived at the time. And also because her father, presumed lost at sea, hasn’t been in her life for years.
“He was gone — lost at sea when she was a small child — risking all on a mission to uncover truth. His death was the reason she and her mother had suffered so. The bone-deep cold and perpetual hunger. Her mother’s desperate turn to prostitution and, not long after, her death. Mary’s own years on the streets, keeping alive as a pickpocket and housebreaker. The inevitable arrest and trial, and the certainty of death — so very close that she’d all but felt the noose about her neck. And then, miraculously, her rescue. The women of the Agency had given her life anew. Mary Lang, the only child of a Chinese sailor and an Irish seamstress, was gone forever. She’d been reborn as Mary Quinn, orphan. Educated at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Trained as an undercover agent. An exciting, hopeful, active life had lain before her. Until this morning.”
And what do you know, once again, in her line of work, Mary chances upon James Easton, the man who sets her heart a pounding.
“It was preposterous. A prank. Utterly ludicrous, to think that in a city of a million souls, she should keep crossing paths with this one man. She’d never believe it in fiction.”
Their paths may have crossed all this while but they’ve never quite figured out what they are to each other. Friends? Colleagues? Fellow Londoners? Potential lovers? She’s not sure how far she can trust him. He’s not sure what exactly she is all about. And Lee allows more thoughts and feelings to emerge in this one.
There are also some new discoveries about the very Agency itself, suggesting a different direction for the series in future books to come. I’m looking forward to them! It’s rather exciting to see how this series has grown and matured. Quite satisfactorily so.
Y S Lee was born in Singapore, raised in Vancouver and Toronto, and lived for a spell in England. As she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture, she began to research a story about a girl detective in 1850s London. The result was her debut novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House. This won the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s inaugural John Spray Mystery Award in 2011.