This is the third book in “The Agency” series, a charming blend of mystery and romance set in Victorian England London in the late 1850s.
For the previous six weeks Mary Quinn, now a fully-trained detective with the Agency – a secret spy ring used by the police as well as private clients – has been posted undercover at the palace of Queen Victoria as an upper housemaid. Small ornaments and trinkets were going missing at the palace, and there were no obvious suspects. But after nearly six weeks at the palace, Mary had heard nothing of use about the thefts.
As the story begins, the police come to tell the queen that her 18-year-old son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, has been involved in a scandal. Albert had been out drinking and carousing with the less than “Honorable” Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth.
The police stated that Prince Albert and Ralph went to an opium den and an altercation ensued; Ralph was stabbed by a Chinese Lascar named Jin Hai Lang. [A lascar was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Arab world, British Somaliland, or other land east of the Cape of Good Hope, who was employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. You can learn more about Lascars here.]
Mary, overhearing this, was in shock. This was her father’s name, her father who was supposedly lost at sea when she was a small child. Moreover, as she mused in the author’s way of recapping Mary’s background:
“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.”
Lang will presumably be executed as a traitor, but Mary is determined to find out first, if he is in fact her father, and second, if he is really guilty. With chutzpah and imagination she manages to do all that while at the same time, solving the mystery of the missing items, as well as reuniting with James Easton, the handsome engineer with whom she collaborated in previous books.
Evaluation: The author takes the unusual and courageous step of making the plot realistic rather than romanticized. Mary’s love/hate exploration of her identity (as a hated “half-breed”) is well-done, the history integrated into the story is interesting, and the chemistry between James and Mary is sparkling. The intrigue and tension-building will keep readers turning the pages. I look forward to the next book in the series.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2012
This looks like a series I could binge read. Adding the series to my list.