The Traitor in the Tunnel (The Agency #3) – YS Lee

 

traitortunnel

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.

 

diversiverse

lavinia-portraitRIP1

I read this book for both Diversiverse and RIP IX

The Body at the Tower (The Agency #2) by YS Lee

bodytower

 

(Please note that this is the second book in The Agency series, if you’ve not read the first book before, you might want to do that before reading further!)

Mary Quinn is back. This time as Mark Quinn, a young apprentice builder working on the site of the Houses of Parliament. She’s there at the behest of The Agency, the all-female detective unit operating out of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, investigating the suspicious death at the clock tower at the soon-to-be-completed Houses of Parliament.

Mary chops off her hair, binds her chest and pulls on the trousers in order to play a young lad working at a construction site. Sounds easy enough but this is Victorian London. And unfortunately for Mary, it brings back bad memories from her childhood, mired in poverty, having to pretend to be a boy in order to survive living on the streets on her own.

The murder-mystery, to be honest, isn’t very intriguing, and in the end, I wasn’t all that interested in who did what and why. Instead, the circumstances Mary finds herself in, and the new characters she meets as a result of the investigation are what make the story work.

Young Peter Jenkins, her fellow apprentice, who is at first suspicious of Mark/Mary but warms up to him/her. Intrepid (or just plain busybody) newspaper reporter Octavius Jones is an interesting addition to the cast as he snoops around and annoys Mary, and hopefully will appear in future books. And then there is James Easton, who was in the first book, and stirred up her Mary’s love interest. He’s a little different now, after a stay in India impaired his health, but he’s still quite charming and his interest in Mary continues, although he’s not quite sure what she’s doing playing a boy at a construction site. And the two of them, while attracted to each other, aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

What he, and almost everyone else, doesn’t realize is that Mary Quinn is hiding her true background. That she is half-Chinese. It’s something that was revealed in the first book, so hopefully that’s not really a spoiler for you!

“It was true that she didn’t look properly mixed race. Her skin was pale and her eyes round, so that much of the time she passed quite easily as black Irish. Even persistent questioners generally wanted to know whether she was Italian or Spanish. And that was just fine with Mary. The last thing she wanted was to acknowledge her Chinese heritage and deal with the questions and hostility it would inevitably invoke. Certainly not yet.”

It is something she muses on now and then, especially since one of the servants at the el cheapo boarding house she’s staying at while undercover is Chinese. Perhaps Lee will bring it up again in other books in the series – The Traitor in the Tunnel or Rivals in the City?

I think it’s great to have a mixed-race character (although she’s unwilling to reveal her Chinese side to anyone at this point of time) in a book set in the Victorian era. There is such potential for this and while I’m perhaps a little disappointed that Lee chose not to dig into it in this second book, I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with this in future books.

The Body at the Tower was a solid second book of the Mary Quinn series. Some historical fiction, some detective/spy work going on, and a brewing love affair with hints of more to come.

 

 

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.

 

diversiverse

lavinia-portraitRIP1

I read this book for both Diversiverse and RIP IX

A spy in the house (The Agency #1)

spyinthehouse

It is London, 1853. Twelve-year-old orphan Mary Lang is rescued from the gallows (sentenced for the crime of housebreaking, poor thing) by Anne Treleaven, the head teacher at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a charity school of sorts that selects its students. Now 17, she has been invited to join the Agency, which ‘complements’ the Academy:

“Here, we turn the stereotype of the meek female servant to our advantage. Because women are believed to be foolish, silly, and weak, we are in a position to observe and learn more effectively than a man in a similar position. Our clients employ us to gather information, often on highly confidential subjects. We place our agents in very sensitive situations. But while a man in such a position might be subject to suspicion, we find that women – posing as governesses or domestic servants, for example – are often totally ignored.”

Mary’s first job (after just one month’s training?!) is as a paid companion to spoilt Angelica Thorold, the daughter of Henry Thorold, suspected of financial crimes, and Mrs Thorold, an invalid. She is to listen out for any news on illegal businesses that Thorold and his secretary Gray, who lives at the house, may discuss.

At a party, she meets James Easton, the younger brother of one of Henry Thorold’s potential investors, who is also investigating Thorold for his own reasons. And they agree to cooperate with each other (she gives him some pretense about looking for a maid who was made pregnant by Thorold) and of course there’s some potential love interest happening here.

The first couple of chapters of the book move fast. Perhaps too fast. We barrel our way from the gallows to joining the academy and then next thing we know, she is 17 and joining the Agency (all in the first 9% of the book – I was reading a library e-book so I don’t have page numbers). I would’ve loved to read a little about life at the school or her training before joining the Agency, or perhaps learn more about Anne, who seems very flat at the moment. The pace slows down (at least when compared to the light speed of the first couple of chapters) when we get to her first assignment but it’s not a very exciting job. Mrs Thorold spends her time visiting doctors, Angelica seems to mostly mope around at home.

So Mary takes matters into her own hands, and sneaks into Thorold’s warehouse to snoop around, getting herself into all sorts of near misses and scrapes. Yeah so she does some silly things, maybe it’s because of a shortened training stint??

Anyway, Lee often hints that there is something different about Mary:

“Where are you from?”

“London.”

Angelica snorted. “With those eyes and that hair?”

Mary couldn’t prevent a defensive blush. “My mother was Irish. Some Irish people have dark eyes and hair.”

“Only half English…” Angelica twisted her mouth in distaste.

It’s not all that hard to guess where Lee is going with this, but I will leave it to you to figure it out or read the book.

I’m curious to see how the second book in the series goes. Hopefully there will be more details about the Agency itself.

Global Women of Color

I wasn’t expecting to be able to read a mystery/Victorian novel (a series no less) that fits the Global Women of Colour challenge, but here it is, my ninth read for the Challenge (challenge page).

ysleeY.S. Lee was born in Singapore and raised in Vancouver and Toronto. In 2004, she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture. This research, combined with her time living in London, triggered an idea for a story about a women’s detective agency. The result was the Agency novels, featuring the intrepid Mary Quinn.

Ying is also the author of Masculinity and the English Working Class (Routledge). She now lives in Kingston, Ontario with her family.

Bibliography
A spy in the house
The Body at the Tower
The Traitor in the Tunnel
Rivals in the City