Hello, friends. On April 26, Candlewick Press will be reissuing all four Agency novels in super-atmospheric new covers. There will be a mini blog tour and some giveaways (hurrah!), and I’m feeling pretty verklempt about the whole thing. I am so grateful that the amazing people at Candlewick remain 1000% behind my books.
I adore the new covers (which are closely based on the amazing UK covers designed by Walker Books). And I’m so very excited to know that new readers will soon meet Mary Quinn.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about Mary Quinn’s literary origins. I’ve written a little about them in the past and will talk about them more next week, during the blog tour. But today, I realized there are two more books – one Victorian, one contemporary – that also nourished the idea of a mixed-race girl detective in Victorian London.
In many ways, the Agency series is the child (children?) of my doctoral thesis. While I was scouring the British Library for autobiographies of working-class men, I ran across a book called The Wind and the Rain: A Book of Confessions by Thomas Burke. The Wind and the Rain purports to be a memoir by Burke, a successful author who published several books between 1915 and 1937. He was the first to write about the Chinese population in London’s East End. In fact, doing so made his reputation.
I soon discovered that The Wind and the Rain was at least partly fictionalized, but by that time I’d already read it. It’s incredibly vivid: nearly all Chinese people in London lived in the communities of Limehouse and Poplar, and Burke knows firsthand the smells of a Chinese herbalist’s shop. While I couldn’t use Burke’s “memoir” in my dissertation, I was already haunted by his (scandal-pandering, sensationalist, Orientalist) depictions of the London Chinese community.
Burke wrote more than once about a character called Quong Lee, who owns a herbalist’s shop in Poplar. So imagine my surprise when Quong Lee turned up as a character in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s mostly excellent graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. 1 (not to be confused with the very forgettable movie adaptation)! The Limehouse scenes in The League are astonishing and squalid – a pretty straight and uncritical use of Burke’s lurid thrills and dangers of the Orient. Still, I was intrigued to find them there at all. This is a London that very few others have bothered to write about. Do I wish Moore had written them with more nuance? Obviously. But crude as they are, the mere existence of those scenes starts a conversation. It creates a space for other writers to jump in. Writers like me.
Recently, there’s been more interest in other Londons: not just Big Ben and Buckingham Palace (which I obviously enjoyed writing about myself!), but also – again – Limehouse and Poplar. The world is getting bigger every day.
If you find yourself intrigued by the history of the Chinese in Britain, here are some juicy starting points:
Limehouse Chinatown Rediscovered – there’s an interactive map that shows significant locations and a bit of the story behind them
The British Chinese Heritage Centre – includes a detailed timeline and interviews
The Chinese in Britain – an article from the Post Magazine that includes photographs and mini-biographies of some Chinese immigrants (the first one is a sailor, like MQ’s father)
Interview with Connie and Leslie Hoe – a couple reminisces about their early c20 childhood in Limehouse. (My editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman, sent me this link several years ago. Thank you, Mara!)
As for the Agency, I hope you’ll join me next week for the blog tour, 4 x 4 about the Agency Quartet.