Mary Quinn returns in ‘The Traitor and the Tunnel’ 1, the third (but not the last, yay) instalment of Y S Lee’s feminist young adult series. Queen Victoria has appealed to The Agency, a discreet mystery solving organisation entirely made up of female operatives, for help in identifying a thief in Buckingham Palace. Small antiques have recently begun to disappear and Mary is sent in as a new maid, to uncover the identity of the thief.
Conversations between the founders Felicity Frame and Anne Treleaven in ‘The Body at the Tower’ signalled that The Agency was going through a difficult time and the divide between the two women appears to be deepening at the beginning of ‘The Traitor and the Tunnel’. Felicity wants to expand the organisation by taking on male agents and investigating cases of wider political importance to. It is implied that these changes would be undertaken so that the Agency might gain more influential connections, increasing its legitimacy and the influence of its founders. Anne wants to continue running a female only organisation, occupied with small, everyday cases like the theft in the palace.
The Agency is a proto-feminist organisation in Victorian England, with modern resonance and this split within The Agency seems to represent the emergence of two distinct brands of feminism; one is exclusively concerned with the empowerment of women by women and one expresses a desire for male allies and a place for women in traditionally male spheres of occupation. It is clear to see the contempt of each woman for the others brand of female advancement. Felicity calling the mission in the palace small fare and Anne is surly around Felicity. Mary feels embarrassed to be caught between them, as she feels they are engaged in unworthy, petty bickering. At the beginning of the novel she is almost relieved to be out on her small, rather unexciting mission.
Although Mary starts off on a simple mission to uncover a thief, anyone who has followed the series so far will be aware that whenever Mary appears to be engaged in solving one mystery, she usually becomes entangled in the investigation of other, more significant crimes. In the course of this investigation Mary over hears details of a royal scandal, a prominent death and a possible attempt on the Prince Regent’s life. While following leads concerning the thefts she finds her way into a secret tunnel below the palace. This tunnel joins onto the London sewer system and provides unsafe access to the royal family. Suddenly, Mary’s simple mission, dismissed by Felicity Frame, leads to matters of great importance.
Where there are engineering works James Easton, Mary’s infuriating, but dashing, love interest is never far away. In this third book, he makes a welcome, remorseful return, full of regret about past priggish behaviour. Mary is of course re-smitten, if still cautious. Despite Jame’s reassurance and his passionate kisses she is still unable to believe that he is capable of loving her and remaining constant to someone with her kind of background (criminal, poor and clearly unrespectable for any stretch of Victorian moral codes).
Sometimes it seemed that Lee was putting unnecessary barriers in the way of Mary and James’ relationship to prolong the romantic suspense. Mary takes any little mistaken hint that James is disinterested as proof that she is undesirable and it could be argued that the attentions of Octavius Jones, the creepy but charismatic journalist, should make her aware of how attractive she is to men. Is Mary exhibiting an unfortunate tendency sometimes identified in capable literary heroines? Is she needlessly insecure, almost falsely modest, when it comes to acknowledging her awesome?
It’s important to take into account Mary’s background and the historical culture she is part of, when she throws up what seem like unnecessary blocks to James’ romantic gestures. She has been forced to hide her race for fear of being shunned and she is aware that society would see her (a poor, mixed race, former criminal) as a poor romantic prospect for someone like James Easton (white, professional, anxious to make his way in the world). She finds it hard to view herself as a decent romantic prospect for James, because widely held societal opinion tells her she constitutes a poor match for him. It’s hard to ask a woman to keep her sense of self-worth intact when that requires her to contradict the whole of society.
Another realistic reason for Mary’s occasional personal insecurities is elaborated on in ‘The Traitor and the Tunnel’. Her involvement with the royal household leads her to learn that a man held as a possible traitor is a Lascar opium fiend and in the true tradition of Victorian literary coincidences it turns out that he is her long lost father. Mary visits him, desperate to keep him from execution, despite the fact that he has never returned for her and is now sunk far from the heroic father she had imagined. He rejects her, refuses to know her, or share any kind word with her. While their relationship improves as time goes by, it’s a pretty hard ask Mary to get over such parental abandonment without coming away with some self-confidence issues. So, no cries of ‘Get a grip luv, everyone’s in love with you’ please, when it comes to Mary2. 3
Anyway, despite worrying how healthy it can be to continue a relationship which is surely doomed by inequality Mary again decides to form a mystery solving team with James and they try to work out the purpose of the tunnels below the palace. Happy by products of this mystery solving are the excitement of darkened creeping found in both previous books in the series and desperate, sexy emotional times down the sewers. Hurray! Have I made it clear enough that although obviously I am Team Mary, I am very much in favour of Mary and James creating their own Team together.
I wouldn’t say that the solution to this mystery is the neatest Lee has created over this series. It turns out the real traitor is quite the lunatic, with no decent plan beyond the heinous crime they’re bent on committing. And despite being a mystery dunce, I twigged who the villain was the first time their name was mentioned. However, I was impressed with how many different convincing, fake leads the novel incorporated and that three, or four mystery plot lines were kept going throughout the book. There were no dropped plots in this novel.
Personally I’m a sucker for any story that manages to place Queen Victoria in a different kind of role. The poker faced, steely but usually seated monarch we’re so used to seeing in popular images is replaced here by a dignified, but active monarch and funny mother. Seeing her get really physical when she apprehended the criminal was excellent (and it didn’t hurt that her involvement gave Mary the chance to correct her Majesty’s rather limited perception of other women).
Where does our female agent go from here? Well, somewhere rather exciting I think if the ending and the teaser it offers is anything to go by. I’m glad to hear that Mary’s adventures have been granted a fourth and final book, currently titled ‘Rivals in the City’, so that Y S Lee has the space to provide a satisfying conclusion to this lovely, feminist series.
1The title may be 'The Traitor in the Tunnel' depending on which country you buy your book from. Y S Lee explains the title difference at her blog.
2Anyway isn’t it troubling that commentators often say that self-conscious heroines have no business being so “annoying” and insecure because the men around them clearly want to sex ‘em up?
3 This has been a classic example of the heated defence of something that nobody is attacking which Jenny outlined recently. Don’t you love how smart Jenny is?