In a historical fiction/mystery mash up, comes this engaging tale about an nontraditional young woman and her life as a secret agent in 1850s London.
As a twelve-year-old girl, orphaned Mary Lang was sentenced to die on the gallows for being a thief, but in a quick rescue mission, she was secretly saved by the young headmistresses of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, which takes in a few charity cases. In her five years of schooling, Mary is reborn as Mary Quinn and chooses to join the secret organization at the school, the Agency, also led by Miss Anne Treleaven and Miss Felicity Frame. In Mary’s first assignment, she is sent to be a companion to a young lady, Angelica Thorold, while also tasked with learning anything she can about the family and some mysterious disappearances of trade goods from India. Attempting to impress her superiors, Mary tries to snoop in Mr. Thorold’s office on her first night, and, upon hearing someone coming, gets shut in a wardrobe with a young man, Mr. James Easton, a gentleman engineer who has a contracting/building company with his elder brother George, who is also a lovesick admirer of Angelica. Despite this blunder, sharp-witted Mary manages to keep her cover and eventually make an ally in James. As she comes closer to discovering the secrets hidden the Thorold family, Mary also learns some unexpected things about her past.
A bricklayer has fallen to his death in the new tower at Parliament, still under construction, and there is suspected foul play, as the building is decades behind schedule and costing far more than was originally estimated. In her second assignment, Mary, posing as a young boy, Mark Quinn, gains employment at the building site, only she comes off as a little too intelligent than she intended. Her first job carrying bricks for the bricklayers lands her into a spat with another young man, Jenkins, and she is almost beaten to death, only the engineer steps in just as Jenkins is flogged within an inch of his life. To better make use of her talents, the engineer, Mr. Harkness sets her to being an aide to the engineer who is investigating the site and its awful schedule on behalf of the city, a man none other than James Easton, newly returned from India having battled with malaria and still somewhat ill. Together, “Mark” and James piece together the real story, full of blackmail, murder and greed, and in doing so, paint a large target on their backs.
On a highly secretive assignment within the Royal household of Queen Victoria at the newly built Buckingham Palace, Mary is pretending to be the head housemaid and discover who is behind a series of thefts. However, the case is turning out to be harder than usual because all vices used to obtain information are highly discouraged, such as gossip, drinking, and social interaction between the men and women. Just as Mary despairs of finding the culprit, her employers from the Agency have some news, Mr. James Easton’s company has been hired to renovate the tunnels beneath the Palace, bringing Mary’s secret identity into jeopardy. Wanting to remain on assignment, Mary convinces him to keep his silence, but their relationship continues to bring new challenges. Then, Prince Albert Edward returns home from school, and a shroud of confusion surrounds his arrival. Mary discovers he was involved in a series of events where one aristocrat ended up dead and a Chinese opium addict ready to swing for it, whose name is none other than Lang. Suddenly, Mary has too many personal conflicts in the case, and worst is yet to come, as someone is intending to commit regicide using the tunnels. Can Mary (and James) save the Queen, the Chinese man who might be her father, and still wrap up her case for the Agency?
Mary and James have finally partnered up, both personally as they are engaged, and occupationally as they’ve formed a detective agency together following the fallout of the Agency’s two heads, Miss Treleaven and Miss Frame. Now, Miss Treleaven has a favor to ask. Will Mary consider working for the Agency one last time, to find and capture the tricky murderess Mrs. Thorold, who is sure to visit her dying and incarcerated husband and newly returned daughter? Accepting the higher stakes, Mary knows she and James will be in mortal danger, because Mrs. Thorold has already tried to kill them before, and not to mention, she will probably be plotting another deadly scheme. Can Mary and James find Mrs. Thorold before she escapes or worse, kills again, or is their future together over before it can even start?
I especially loved James and Mary in this series. The intrigue, the settings, all very engaging. If you want a read-a-like, check out The Dark Unwinding and A Spark Unseen, blog post that will be coming in a few weeks!
Note: Clean/gentle read!