In this MYSTERY THEMED post reviews of: Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home (Minotaur Books, 2013); Tess Gerritsen’s Last to Die (Ballantine Books, 2012); .S. Lee’s, The Agency 1: A Spy in the House (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 3: The Traitor in the Tunnel (Candlewick Press, 2012).
A Review of Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home (Minotaur Books, 2013).
Steph Cha’s debut novel Follow Her Home reveals a writer keenly aware and inspired by the subgenre of American noir fiction. With repeated references to Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, we know we are moving into a seedy underworld that is best set in a city like Los Angeles. Cha’s narrator is the indefatigable Juniper Song, a twenty-something who in her spare time can apparently moonlight as an unofficial investigator. A request from a close friend named Luke—who hails from a very upper crust background—requires Song to follow a young Korean American woman named Lori Lim, who may or may not be involved in an affair with Luke’s father, the business magnate known as William Cook. We are not surprised when we begin to discover that the mystery surrounding Lori is bigger and messier than Song could ever realize. Indeed, Song will soon be intimidated into keeping silent regarding everything she might have seen regarding Lori; a dead body found in the trunk of her car also alerts her to the fact that the shadowy figures involved in Lori’s life are not to be trifled with. Of course, Song is not about to back down; she enlists the friend of a former flame turned legal expert, Diego, and begins to find out what she can about Lori, in the hopes that she can protect herself and her family. Cha uses a very effective doubled narrative here that moves Song back into the past; we begin to see that Song’s interest in Lori is not merely related to this mystery. Indeed, Lori in some ways reminds Song of her connection to her younger sister, Iris. In that particular subplot, Song realizes that she does not know as much about her sister as she had thought and her efforts to find out more about Iris’s romantic history leads to a very climactic reveal late in the narrative that provides the main story arc more texture. As with any noir, motivations and first impressions are never directly transparent and many of the characters introduced know much more than they are willing at first to admit. As the body count begins to pile up, Song realizes that the stakes of this investigation have moved into a register where she knows she must see this mystery to its end, else she herself may be the next one to be found dead. Cha’s debut novel would fit very well into any American detective fiction course and would especially pair well with Walter Mosley, in her exploration of race, ethnicity, and the urban metropolis known as Los Angeles. The novel would also serve as a kind of effective contrast with another novel I love, Suk Kim’s Interpreter, in the exploration of the Korean American woman turned unofficial detective.
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A Review of Tess Gerritsen’s Last to Die (Ballantine Books, 2012).
I was saving this book to read for a point where I needed something a little bit more plot-driven to consume my time and on a trip to visit some family, it provided some much needed frivolity. Last to Die is the latest installment in Tess Gerritsen’s long running and very popular Rizzoli & Isles series, which has been adapted into a television serial. The premise is spooky enough. It seems as though there are children being targeted repeatedly, so much so that any family they are connected with—first biological, then later adoptive—are killed off. Thus, the three main children in this novel have all suffered family massacres not once, but twice. Gerritsen adds yet another interesting element into the equation by uniting these three characters at a special school, The Evensong Boarding School, for children who have been subjected to major traumas. The school, located in Maine, and away from the Boston locale that grounds the series itself, is the perfect venue for this mystery plot to begin taking on other interesting textures. For those who are knowledgeable about the series, the fact that the Evensong Boarding School is run by the Mephisto Society is already potential cause for concern. Further still, once the school psychologist is found dead, having jumped from a high building and under suspicious circumstances, it becomes clear that that all is not well at the school. Gerritsen also uses enigmatic intercuts that ramp up the tension in the plotting—a narrative device I recall from Silent Girl, the last novel in the series. Readers are pushed to make sense of that narrative against the main plotting and the connections don’t become clear until late into the mystery. Gerritsen also manages to balance the detective plot against the personal trials of its two female protagonists, who are struggling still to rebuild their friendship due to past events. Rizzoli’s parents in particular are the subject of considerable romantic complications, so that subplot gives readers much needed space to breathe, especially because the body count begins to pile up. Even animals are sacrificed in ritualistic killings. Fans of the series and of the mystery genre should be more than happy with this offering.
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A Review of Y.S. Lee’s, The Agency 1: A Spy in the House (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 3: The Traitor in the Tunnel (Candlewick Press, 2012).
In Y.S. Lee’s deliciously fun The Agency series, our heroine is Mary Quinn, a young girl of a questionable background who is saved at the beginning of the novel by the mysterious Agency, who is sort of devoted to the recovery and reformulation of a women’s lives. The Agency is set in the Victorian era and the writer, Y.S. Lee, is no stranger to this period. As our faithful amazon webpage tells us: “Y. S. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture and says her research inspired her to write A SPY IN THE HOUSE, ‘a totally unrealistic, completely fictitious antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like Mary Quinn.’ Y. S. Lee lives in Ontario, Canada.” In this respect, the “agency” enables girls like Mary Quinn a second chance because she lives on the margins of society as a petty thief. The Agency allows Mary to develop other skills, but there’s still limited options: should be become a wife, a governess, or servant; the other unsavory options being bandied about include becoming a prostitute or mistress. So, Lee creates an alternative job trajectory for Mary in this counterfactual, “totally unrealistic,” but nevertheless super fun speculative fiction wherein Mary can become a spy and report upon a particular household as a companion to the daughter of the prime suspect: a one Mr. Thorold, who may or may not be involved with the theft of priceless Indian subcontinent artifacts. At this point, it’s important to pause to say that one of the Lee’s great strengths in the strongly transnational and postcolonial tinge to her collection. Goods and services are being shipped all over the world in the novel, linking the Victorian era London to different nodal points for colonial capitalistic investments. Lee, of course, wants to make sure that even if there isn’t a tried and true marriage plot or courtship plot afloat, that there could be an alternative romance plot as Mary must deal with James Easton, a man who is researching the Thorold’s business dealings to find out whether or not they are as upstanding as they purport to be. James is a worthy counterpart to Mary insofar as he immediately notices how different she is. Her difference is, of course, another aspect that Lee plays with in one of the big surprises mid-way through the novel, which I will refuse to spoil for you. Suffice it to say that Lee’s first book in the Agency is that rare young adult work with a historical texture, a fantasy register, a detective fiction, and a courtship/romance all rolled into one.
In the second book in the series, we found our heroine Mary Quinn, going under very deep cover, but this time as a young boy (renamed as Mark Quinn), working at a building site. She’s been dispatched to discover more details concerning the suspicious circumstances of a worker who was found dead, having fallen from the titular tower. Though Mary is game for this job, her overseers at the Agency are wary that such a duty might have psychological ramifications. You see: before Mary was saved and reformed by the Agency, she lived on the streets as a petty thief and hoodlum; she was able to survive in part, often relying upon disguises and passing as a man. Her elders wonder if such a job might trigger unsavory past experiences that could compromise her surveillance activities. Despite this warning, Mary decides that she can do the job, even requesting that she take residence at a working class type facility wherein she would not have the comforts or even the advantages of decent food. Mary’s work is at first not too difficult; she is able to get a job through Harkness, the site engineer, and begins working for the various people below him, which include the imposing and rather spiteful, Keenan, as well as his colleague, Reid. Of course, this series would not be complete with its central romance and fortunately, Lee sees fit to have James Easton, from book 1, return from his travels in India. He’s hired by Harkness to begin an independent assessment of the building site that would be conducted in order to clear him or any of his employees from wrongdoing in the death of Wick. When Mary—as Mark—accidentally bumps into him, James is one of the few to see so easily through the disguise, but he chooses not to break her cover. Indeed, this sequel sees James Easton willing to engage yet another partnership with Mary, presumably of course because of his strong feelings for her. There are of course the occasional issues related to Mary’s complicated identity background, which adds yet another wrinkle to the many dilemmas that arise in the course of the plotting. Lee’s narrative here occasionally flags as it attempts to retain tension throughout, but overall, the book is a spirited, if counterfactual look at an undercover women’s agency during the Victorian era.
In the latest installment, The Traitor in the Tunnel, Mary Quinn is actually undercover in Buckingham Palace! She is dispatched by the Agency in order to find out about a thief that may be pilfering precious items from the royal household. Of course, Lee is never intent to keep the first mystery the only one and soon other issues arise. Most importantly, the Prince of Wales is caught up in a murder scandal in which a close friend might have been killed in an opium den. Interestingly enough, the accused murdered actually may have ties to Mary herself, which ends up complicating and stretching out Mary’s own investments in her sleuthing. I am deliberately being cagey about the potential connection between Mary and the murderer precisely because I’ve attempted to keep a major plot point unspoiled that is revealed from the first book. Finally, Mary’s romance-nemesis, James Easton, returns yet again, as he is contracted to help with the building of a sewer system below London. As Mary soon discovers, the sewer and its connection to Buckingham Palace is a matter of national security. Fans of mystery and of YA historical will again be delighted by this title. Lee clearly has fun with her characters in this spirited third in the series. Fortunately, there are apparently plans for a fourth to appear sometime soon!
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