March 14, 2012

The Agency: The Traitor in the Tunnel

by Y. S. Lee
Candlewick Press
373 pp.
Ages 12+

Mary Quinn, née Mary Lang, rescued from hanging (she was a 12 year-old-thief) by Anne Treleaven and Felicity Frame, is now a full member of  The Agency, a covert operation that uses women agents to investigate suspicious activities in Victorian London.  In her first cases (A Spy in the House, Candlewick, 2010; The Body at the Tower, Candlewick, 2010), Mary learned to disguise herself effectively, first as a lady's paid companion and then as a young boy, and now she is  employed as an upper housemaid at Buckingham Palace in order to investigate several recent thefts.  Also similar to her earlier cases, she connects with the intriguing Mr. James Easton, of Easton Engineering, a man who incites both anger and affection in her.

Much in the style of Anne Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries, the reader becomes acquainted with Victorian society from Queen Victoria and her family through the honourable upper class to the domestic servants and the working poor and below all are those whose heritage (e.g., Asian) and vices (e.g., opium, thievery) afford them nothing.  As an undercover agent, Mary has learned to adjust herself according to her company but she can never hide from herself the fact that her father was a Chinese sailor, making her "half-caste".  That said, when the Prince of Wales, Bertie to his mother, Queen Victoria, becomes enmeshed in a murder in which an Asiatic sailor named Lang Jin Hai is arrested, Mary must reconcile her emotions regarding her long-lost father.

In the true fashion of a well-plotted mystery, all encounters, actions and words provide layers to the mystery.  The thefts and murder, already intertwining Buckingham Palace and Mary's father, become further entangled with the suspicious ventures of the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Honoria Dalrymple; the courting of a fellow domestic by the unscrupulous reporter Mr. Octavius Jones; lack of communication from The Agency; and intimate and invaluable meetings with Mr. James Easton.

Just as great mysteries are tightly woven to prevent comprehension from penetrating too easily, they are said to unravel, thread by thread, sometimes more quickly, sometimes with resistance.  As such, The Traitor in the Tunnel is a great mystery, dense with characters and subplots and the palpable Victorian London atmosphere, in which the single loose thread needed to unravel it is elusive.  But Mary Quinn, with James Easton's assistance, is dauntless in her search for answers.  Ultimately it is only the enigma that is Mary herself that must be resolved.

Author Y. S. Lee's text is rich in picturesque detail leading the reader through the rooms of Buckingham Palace to the dankness of the underground tunnel and sewer system of London circa 1860, creating an entity of the setting itself.  Coupled with authentic dialogue, varying depending on the characters, and Mary's introspective voice, The Traitor in the Tunnel's multi-fold mysteries and romantic flavour will engage the reader completely and leave them anticipating great new beginnings for Mary.

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