The Traitor and The Tunnel by Y.S.Lee (Agency Series #3)

The Agency novels rank amongst my favorite YA works of all-time, and so I’m  hugely chuffed that I got a review copy of Lee’s latest novel way before the scheduled North American release, so I could review it for the Hong-Kong based Asian Review of Books.  Oh, the sweet life of a reviewer.  I’m also utterly delighted that  the Kingston-based Lee *just* won the 2011 Canadian Children’s Literature Award for these books.


The Traitor and the Tunnel is the third installment of Canadian author Y. S. Lee’s Agatha Award-nominated YA series The Agency, which features Mary Quinn, a teen detective for a Victorian-era secret spy agency staffed and run by women. The latest novel replicates the successful formula of its predecessors—Mary is assigned a minor case, which turns out to harbor myriad complications that involve her family secrets, and a run-in with the “better than handsome” James Easton. What’s not to like?

Mary is now posing as a housemaid to investigate a rash of thefts of trinkets and ornaments—in Buckingham Palace. She soon eavesdrops her way into a maze of royal secrets, including a nasty scandal surrounding the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Bertie to his family). While carousing with a titled friend at an opium den, Bertie set in motion (or at least witnessed) events that led to his friend’s murder by a Chinese sailor. The kicker: the sailor accused of murder shares Mary’s last name, and just might be her long-lost father. Mary has always kept her mixed-race heritage a secret, choosing to pass as black Irish, but she must now decide where her loyalties lie.

It takes a certain confidence for a writer (even one like Lee, with a PhD in Victorian literature and culture) to assign Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII major roles in a YA novel, and I’m happy to report that Lee succeeds brilliantly in bringing them to life—they are interesting people first and historical figures next. This book made research the Prince of Wales (on Wikipedia) where I discovered that he opposed votes for women, smoked twelve cigars a day, laid the cornerstone for Parliament Hill in Ottawa—and that his long list of mistresses included Winston Churchill’s mother. This history business is more interesting than I’d thought.

And what about James Easton, you ask, whom we last saw in The Body at the Tower, tut-tutting over Mary’s unsuitable childhood? Well, James has seen the error of assuming he’s CEO of the Moral Universe and begs Mary’s forgiveness by page 71, so we can like him again. James’s engineering firm has just been awarded a secret contract to repair the sewers of Buckingham Palace. When Mary finds a mysterious tunnel that’s not in James’s maps, the two must work together to figure out the purpose of a tunnel that leads nowhere. Will their third adventure together finally lead, you know, to romance? (Incidentally, well-aware that three coincidental run-ins are a tad much, Lee sets the stage for a more organic partnership for the couple in the future.)

The Traitor and the Tunnel is the most overtly feminist of Lee’s books thus far, exploring a wide range of women’s roles from Queen Victoria (arguably the most powerful person on the planet at that time) to an infinitely helpless domestic servant, and in each instance, Lee makes a strong case for financial independence as the key to a woman’s freedom. Mary truly comes into her own in this book as a courageous, principled woman, and Lee gives her some great lines—for instance in this scene when one of the Palace equerries attempts to molest her.

He wanted her [Mary] to struggle.

He wanted her to cry, to beg, to be terrified.

He hadn’t the first clue with whom he was dealing.

“You stupid little boy,” she said in a clear, acidic voice. “What d’you think Bertie’s going to say when I tell him what you’re trying to do?”

Instantly he went still.

[…] “You’ll lose your post of course. But there’ll also be the cost of paying me off. Do you have that sort of ready money? And there’s the scandal: you’ll have to explain things to your father. D’you really want to tell him that your entire family lost favour with the future king, all because you couldn’t keep your mitts off a parlour-maid?”

The Agency series is very deliberately constructed around the political and cultural climate of the era, and this book tackles the subject of Asians living in Victorian Britain. Whilst generations of Chinese peacefully made their homes in London, recent political events have led to attacks on their persons as well as their business interests, and Mary wonder whether Queen Victoria will be quite as concerned with justice when the man charged with murder is Chinese.

And as always, Lee injects her story with a wealth of information about the period, from the kind of cakes served at tea-time at Buckingham Palace (ooh, butterfly buns sound good) to the “flushers” who work in the royal sewers. The richness of detail, the intelligent writing, the intricate plots, and superbly-drawn characters elevate this series miles above most YA offerings on the shelves today; I’m delighted to hear this trilogy now has a fourth installment in store for its many devotees.


Spoilerish whine, not part of the original review: The only place where Lee didn’t quite carry me along was in the dissention between the founders of the Agency. The two owners, Anne and Felicity, disagree on whether to expand (and dilute the original vision), or to stay small but faithful to the dream of a woman-only organization, and ask Mary to choose whom she’d like to follow. (Typically, she finds a third way; this is Mary Quinn we’re talking about, Queen of the Daring Initiative.) I wish, though, that we knew more about the founders–they remain shadowy right till the end, and their split is thus largely academic as it is shorn of any personal history about the two women, which would have made their disagreement truly meaningful to the reader. I can’t help but wonder about the genesis of The Agency, and given the way this book ends,  I don’t think we’re going to learn much more. Sooooo…how about a prequel, Ying? And I bet the ever-multiplying horde of devotees will second my plea.


The Agency Series by Y.S.Lee

At the ripe age of twelve, Mary Lang thinks she’s seen it all. As an orphan in Victorian England, Mary has known little other than poverty and misery, and when she’s sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, she almost welcomes death. But Mary is miraculously whisked away from the gallows to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The Academy provides free education and the prospect of a decent livelihood to promising girls, and Mary’s intelligence and spirit have deemed her worthy of rescue.

But Miss Scrimshaw’s doesn’t just produce governesses and companions. The Academy is in fact The Agency — a secret organization of female investigators who use the prevailing stereotypes of weak, helpless women as the perfect cover for their work. Now seventeen, Mary jumps at the chance to join the Agency. After learning code-cracking, lock-picking, pugilism, and more, Mary is ready for her first assignment: to investigate a shipping merchant suspected of smuggling antiques from India. Henry Thorold is a connected with the East India Company and the Far East Trading Company, and his daughter Angelica needs a companion. Enter Mary, now calling herself Mary Quinn.

But what should be a routine investigation is complicated by Angelica’s hostility, and by the opinionated James Easton’s interference in Mary’s activities. And when the trail leads to a refuge for retired Lascars (Asian sailors), Mary finds unforeseen danger. Secrets she’s guarded since her childhood threaten to unravel; the truth would lead to her undoing in London society. Solving the mystery of Thorold’s activities will take all of Mary’s considerable wit and courage — and discretion.

My main issue with genre fiction set in Victorian England is the tendency of these books to trivialize the implications of Britain’s colonial activities — the Empire is colorful background for a story that would work just as well in another setting. A Spy in the House places the damage wrought by (mercantile) colonialism at the center of its plot. Thorold’s luxury is “built on the backs of merchant sailors. International trade and dangerous labor [were] an unacknowledged, invisible source of wealth”. The ships were often overloaded in order to save on costs, especially when they were crewed by Lascars; such ships, which sank often, earned the name coffin ships.

Lee’s narrative is mindful of historical accuracy at every turn. While the Agency is indeed pure fantasy, it is one calibrated to espouse a historically-believable vision of feminine power rather than merely cater to modern-day sensibilities. And while Mary is very much a feminist, she never comes across as an anachronism, for her behavior reflects her character rather than any ideology. So, in all, I was very glad to see Mary and The Agency again in the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower. The tower of the title is St. Stephen’s Tower, more widely known as the clock tower that houses Big Ben.

Construction of the tower is twenty-five years behind schedule, madly over budget, and dogged by trouble, and Mary, in the guise of a young boy, joins the work crew on the building site to investigate the mysterious death of one of the bricklayers. As expected, James Easton reappears in a meaty role, and things progress nicely between the two. Lee’s narrative strengths (she is adept at withholding information so as to make readers pant for more, without skimping on plot detail) and command of the period are evidenced yet again in this installment, and she honors her teen audience’s often under-rated intelligence with her attention to historical detail. But while The Body… works well as a stand-alone mystery, many tantalizing loose ends from the first book continue to dangle at the end of this one. I assume All Will Be Revealed in The Traitor and the Tunnel, the concluding part of this trilogy to be published later this year. It’s going to be a long hard wait.

This review appears in the current edition of The Asian Review of Books.


A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower by Y.S.Lee

Candlewick 2010

Genre: YA

Visit Lee’s website and blog here.