Posts Tagged ‘The Agency’

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I hope you have a celebratory libation in hand. I certainly do, because today is Rivals in the City‘s birthday! As many of you know, this has been a long time coming, and there were definitely times when I feared it would never happen at all. But March 10 is here, and Rivals is now on sale in bookstores across Canada and the U. S.

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeDespite the jubilation, this is also a bittersweet day for me. The publication of Rivals also marks the end of the Agency quartet – the last Mary Quinn adventure, the last time I write dialogue between Mary and James, and probably my last romp through London, 1858-1860.

Don’t worry: I’m not finished writing novels! I’m just ready to try a new setting. Despite the fact that I’m eager for change, though, it’s hard to leave this world behind. It feels like a second home to me (a family cottage?), and I’ll miss it dearly.

To mark this special week, I wrote a guest post called “Writing Diversity in Dialogue” for Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo’s very fine site, Diversity in YA. If you read it first there and are just finding your way here, welcome! I’m re-posting it here this week, though, because there’s no comments section at DiYA, and my desire is to start a conversation about this sticky subject. So please, let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter (I’m @yinglee). I’d love to discuss this to the next stage in good company.

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

One of the delights of the written word is the power – in fact, the necessity – of creating your own mental pictures and soundtrack. Only you know just what the heroine looks like when she’s angry; only you know the precise music of her nemesis laughing. Setting plays a huge role, too: contemporary America vs. medieval France vs. a planet far, far away. As readers, we are our own casting directors, cinematographers, and composers. I’m here today to argue that we should be our own dialogue coaches, too.

As a genre, historical fiction – which I love, and which I write – is prone to spelling out accents. Often, it’s not enough to mention in passing that a character is a stableboy or a visiting German aristocrat; the characters’ words are spelled out so that we can see, on the page, just how outlandish their pronunciation is. And that’s not all. The real problem is that historical fiction is especially prone to spelling out lower-class accents.

See the bias here? Everybody has an accent; that much is obvious. But in novels where lower-class accents are spelled out, the upper-class accents are rendered in standard English spelling. The not-so-subtle subtext is that upper-class accents are “normal”, while lower-class accents deviate from an invisible, correct norm. Add to this the fact that working-class accents are most frequently used to provide comic relief or create pathos, and what we have is proud and unexamined social snobbery written openly on the page. We should be embarrassed. We should repudiate this. We should complain, bitterly, so that writers and editors re-think assumptions about class, accent, and the ways we report speech.

When I wrote the Agency novels, I solved the problem by representing dialect (irregular grammar) but not accent. I might write a character who says, “I don’t know who done it.” I might even write, “Dunno” instead of “Don’t know,” on the grounds that everybody, across the social spectrum, uses contractions in speech. But I assume that my readers can imagine what “I don’t know who done it” might sound like, spoken aloud. I won’t write, “I daown’t knaow ‘oo dunnit!” It’s patronizing, it’s ugly, and it’s an invitation to readers to feel superior to that character.

But whether they were mudlarks or monarchs, all these characters of mine were native speakers of English. When writing Rivals in the City, I found that I had a fresh problem: how to write dialogue for a character who speaks imperfect English. A character, in fact, who spoke only Chinese until a couple of years prior to the action of the novel, and who speaks with a distinct Chinese accent.

I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spelling out his pronunciation. Still, I felt stuck as to how to convey his accent. Stereotypes of Asian accents in English are usually patronizing and ugly. While French accents are heard as charming, and British accents register as classy, Asian accents are fodder for the unfunniest kinds of jokes. How many times have you heard a French or British person congratulated on speaking “without an accent”? Yeah. Asian accents are the stableboys of the accent hierarchy.

In the end, after a lot of deliberation, I wrote this Chinese character’s dialogue as I would that of any other. His vocabulary is more limited, because he’s relatively new to the language. Figures of speech perplex him. But for me, the clearest and most respectful way of signaling his difference was in giving him words, hearing him speak, and having him articulate his confusion and discomfort with London life in the year 1860. I think that was enough.

I’m curious, though: have you tried or run across other respectful, effective strategies for signaling difference through accent? I’d love to hear them. With any luck – because we’re going to keep reading and writing about diverse casts of characters, right? – this problem will be with us for a long time yet.

(This post was also published earlier this week at Diversity in YA.)

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Author Math

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. The Agency novels are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed England and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the steam-powered Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my books takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city.

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.41.39 PMI assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour – a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

– 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

– 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

– 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeThis left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period of time my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?

(This post was also published yesterday at The History Girls.)

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Rivals in the City is almost here!

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Hello, friends. It’s official: we have a launch party for Rivals in the City!

launch invitation

The specifics, if the image is hard to read:

When: Saturday, March 7, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Where: Novel Idea Books, 156 Princess St., Kingston, Ontario

Yes, the launch party is happening before the official pub date of March 10. What does this mean? Why, it means that at the party, you’ll be able to buy Rivals in the City 3 days before it’s officially published!

There will be wine and nibbles. I’ll be there reading, signing, and almost certainly talking at warp speed. And I really hope you’ll come, too.

Until then, you can read the first chapter for free, as well as a deleted scene. And in less than two weeks, the whole novel will be here.

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Rivals in the City: a deleted scene

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Hello, friends. This post starts with a quantity of self-promotion but I’ll make it up to you with a deleted scene from the final Agency novel, Rivals in the City. In just four weeks, Candlewick Press will publish Rivals in Canada and the USA, and some very nice things are happening as a result!

To begin with, you can pre-order Rivals from your local independent bookseller, or through IndieBound, or B&N, or Amazon USA, or Chapters/Indigo, or Amazon Canada, or anywhere at all, really. It will have this glorious cover.

Rivals in the City, by Y S Lee

A Kingston launch party is in the works, with date to be confirmed.

Kirkus likes it, wooo! The highlights: “Intrigue, romance and the rich details of Victorian life are the focus in the fourth installment of this mystery series featuring a complex female detective. … As with the previous volumes, the elements of Victorian life are well-drawn, adding rich texture to the storytelling. … Readers of the series will find this addition deeply satisfying as both a mystery and a historical romance.” Here’s a link to the full review at Kirkus.

Over at Bustle, they included A Spy in the House in a listicle called “If ‘Agent Carter’ Is Making Your Life Amazing Right Now, You Must Read These 12 Books”. It’s such a rush seeing my book mentioned in the same breath as those by Robin LaFevers, Elizabeth Wein, and Sebastian Faulks. Oh, I’m going to be insufferable.

Bookriot’s Amanda Nelson is reading The Body at the Tower and you can, too! E-Volt is currently offering a substantial free sample of Mary Quinn’s second outing.

If you didn’t already know, the first chapter of Rivals in the City is already up, right here.

And finally, here’s another taste of Rivals in the City – a deleted scene that didn’t make the cut, but I still wanted to share with you.

The Background

Rivals in the City went through a huge number of revisions, so I had a lot of deleted scenes to choose from. My favourite, though, might be this one. It’s a scene I wrote in order to take the emotional temperature between Mary and James, eight months after Mary achieves financial independence – an event that entirely transforms her understanding of life.

I was reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, at the time, and was thrilled to learn that Dickens regularly dined with his mistress, the actress Nellie Ternan, in restaurants. Sometimes they had friends with them, but sometimes they appear to have been alone together. I’m not sure what they called it, but to me it sounds just like a date.

I couldn’t resist taking Mary and James on a date, too. I cut the scene – didn’t even finish it properly – because it contributes nothing to the actual plot. But the scraps remain. And because I spend so much time propelling Mary and James from one peril to another, sometimes it pleases me to imagine them doing something as mundane as going on a date. In Dickens’s favourite restaurant.

— The Deleted Scene —

When her bell rang that evening at a perfectly punctual five minutes before eight o’clock, Mary checked her appearance in the hall mirror one last time. It was quite a transformation from her usual minimal toilette. She was fragrant with her favourite soap and wearing, for the first time, her only evening gown. She’d taken care with her hair. She only half-recognized the young lady in the mirror: a thought would have amused her, had it not also made her uneasy.

After securing her cape over her shoulders, she carefully descended to the front door on a staircase suddenly made steep and narrow by her large crinoline. Anticipation and unease united to make her fingers stiff and awkward, and she fumbled with the doorlatch for a moment. At last, though, it opened to reveal James on the step, freshly shaven and wearing an evening dress coat.

“Good evening, Mr. Easton,” she said to James, in her most demure tones.

“Good evening, Miss Quinn.” After the briefest of hesitations, he bowed and kissed her hand. “I’m afraid our conveyance isn’t quite up to our gorgeous behaviour.”

Mary glanced past his shoulder and grinned at the sight of a hansom cab waiting at the curb. “I wondered how you’d escort me, under the new rules,” she confessed, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “A closed carriage is clearly indecent.”

“The streets are far too filthy for walking.”

“And I never learned to ride a horse,” she confessed.

“Plenty of time for that,” he said, offering a hand to help her into the cab. “I’ll teach you.”

She smiled at that. “By that time, we’ll be able to ride in all the closed carriages we want.”

“I can’t wait.” He stroked the inside of her wrist, finding the fraction of bare skin between her glove and sleeve, and she shivered.

Despite the hansom’s open design – they were clearly visible to anybody in the street who cared to look – it retained an air of privacy: a small space in which they fit together neatly, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. James took both her hands and smiled when she interlaced her fingers with his. Even through two pairs of gloves, his and hers, this felt indescribably intimate.

The cab turned with a creaking of leather and springs, and set off at a leisurely pace. “How was your meeting with the new client?” she asked. The question itself made her smile slightly, with its overtones of wifely concern.

He squeezed her hand, clearly hearing the same domestic notes. “Quite long, in the end. There’s talk of building a second railway line, to allow a fast train directly from the ferry port in Gravesend to London. They wanted my opinion.”

“That sounds promising.”

James made a non-committal face. “Possibly.” He was always guarded, pessimistic, about new business. “How was your day?”

Mary considered this invitation to change the subject. Anne Treleaven’s visit weighed heavily on her mind but she shied away from introducing threat and tension so early in the evening. Why shouldn’t she and James enjoy the novelty of dining together for once, free of threat and tension? They could discuss the case after dinner. “Varied,” she said, eventually.

A half-smile. “Sounds exciting.”

“It never quite seems to be a simple case of ooh-I-ordered-a-new-hat-and-had-luncheon-with-Miss-Smith.”

“If you ever said that, my first instinct would be to call a physician.”

“You have very strange taste in young ladies.”

He squeezed her hand again. “Someone’s got to.”

Verrey’s shone like a beacon in the fog, a miracle of gleaming plate-glass, burnished brass, and gaslight. A doorman in gold-braid opened the door with an obsequious bow, and Mary and James entered the building arm-in-arm. To all outward observers, they were just another rich young couple going to dinner. Privately, Mary hoped the shaking of her knees wasn’t also making her skirts tremble.

An attendant showed her to the cloakroom, relieved her of her cape, and indicated a small table at which she could make any last-minute adjustments to her hair and gown. Mary stared at her reflection, rendered unfamiliar by the blazing lights and plush furnishings. She didn’t look like an interloper; she was entirely plausible here, in this elegant setting. A good detective ought to be a chameleon, but the realization was startling nonetheless.

When she rejoined James in the dining-room, escorted to her table by yet another lackey, he was already seated. He glanced in her direction, looked away, then did a sudden and distinctly comic double-take at the sight of Mary in an evening gown, neck and shoulders on rare display. His eyes flashed with surprise and he half-stumbled to his feet. A sudden smile curved his lips. He pivoted slightly, until he stood between her and the attendant, and murmured, “Stunning.” Though his voice was nearly inaudible, his admiration rang in her ears, making her giddy.

It was a relief to sink bonelessly into the drawn-out dining chair. As James slid her chair towards the table, he stroked her spine with the gentlest of fingers, sending a powerful shiver down the length of her body. Speech was impossible. After a few moments, she remembered to breathe.

He sat down across the table and gazed upon her for a long minute. “Well,” he finally murmured, “if there are rumours flying about town tomorrow about my involvement with a young actress or dancer, you’ll know who she is.”

She smiled. “Outrageous flattery. I think, however, that I see a genuine celebrity in the far corner. Over your left shoulder, is that not Mr. Dickens?”

James craned his neck and was met with a frown of reproof from the eminent gentleman. He turned back to Mary with a small smile. “Indeed. Dining with a genuine actress, Miss Ternan.”

Mary met his gaze with a wicked smile. “Tell me again why you’re so set on perfect propriety when all the world knows about Mr. Dickens’s highly irregular domestic life?”

James swallowed his riposte as a waiter glided up to their table. Their meal was a beautifully cooked affair, accompanied by good wine and capped with French cheeses. As they dined and talked, Mary thought she would always remember this evening with perfect clarity. There was something about the exquisite staging of the restaurant, the dazzle of lights and elegantly pitched conversation. Perhaps it was knowing that this artful serenity existed within a dark, fog-choked, raucous city. For the first time that she could recall, Mary gave herself up to decadence. She felt nearly at home amidst such luxury.

— End of Deleted Scene –

And that’s my week, friends. What are you all up to?

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My Year of Non-Fiction

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Hello, friends! ‘Tis the season for guest-blogging, apparently. My weekly post is up today at the Booksmugglers, where I’m talking about 2014 as My Year of Non-Fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

If you read my History Girls post about Freddy Spencer Chapman last week, some of this will be familiar but you might hang want to in there for a little about Fanny Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Imlay, the firstborn daughter of the original hyena in petticoats, Mary Wollstonecraft.

What are your most memorable books or reading threads of 2014? And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

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Cover reveal: Rivals in the City

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’m posting a day early this week, because I’m having trouble controlling my excitement. Today, I am absolutely delighted to share with you the cover for Rivals in the City. This is the Candlewick Press edition, to be published in the US and Canada in February 2015.

Rivals in the City, by Y S Lee

Isn’t it perfect? Every time I see it (which is quite frequently), I smile and sigh with satisfaction.

You can read the first chapter for free, right here.

But that’s not all! Today, I am also the guest of the Booksmugglers. Over there, I share some behind-the-scenes images from the cover photo shoot and talk about the making of the Agency covers. AND Candlewick Press is very generously giving away a whole bunch of Rivals ARCs! Go on, click click click!

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Ahistorical Fiction

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Rivals in the City by Y S LeeHello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.

The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.

Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?

To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ahistorical Fiction

My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

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Rivals in the City: Chapter One

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. Can you believe that it’s only six weeks until the UK publication of Rivals in the City? I know, I know! I finished my final proofread last week and the typeset pages went to the printers on Thursday. (I have since found some corrections that I’d like to make – AUGH!) Ahem.

Anyway, to celebrate and to thank you for hanging on with such dauntless patience, I am thrilled to excerpt for you, right here, the first chapter of Rivals in the City. I hope you enjoy it!

Rivals in the City final cover

Chapter One

Saturday, 13 October, 1860
The streets of London

It was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.

Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow a shade tighter. “Isn’t this delightful?”

He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”

She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, past a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But she needn’t have spoken. James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder, urging him to movement.

Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.

James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”

“You were complaining about the weather. Not for the first time.” She smiled up at him again, teasing this time. “Are you quite certain you don’t want to come up to my flat for tea and toast and scandal?” As her future husband, James wanted their marriage to be respectable. It wasn’t for his sake, particularly, although she suspected he cared about reputation more than he would acknowledge. No, it was for Mary: in order to bury her past properly, and allow her a fresh start, they had agreed to behave with Utter Propriety. No matter how hypocritical and inconvenient the conventions of etiquette, it was worth observing them for a short while, for the social invisibility it would afford their marriage. These cold and uncomfortable walks about town were a perfect example of their new courtship, conducted by the rules: how else could an unmarried lady and gentleman hold a truly private conversation, unchaperoned and uninterrupted? James’s logic was inarguable. And yet, after twenty years of freedom, Mary desperately resented these superficial social restrictions. Was this the moment to propose her little escapade?

His reply wiped all thought of it from her mind. “I’d love to. Let’s just pop into the next church and get married, first.”

She puffed with amusement and saw her breath in the air. “Of course, you’ve a marriage license in your pocket.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“I’d no idea you were on such intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“There are common licenses, you know. One can be obtained from any vicar.”

She halted and stared up into his dark eyes. They glinted with mockery, and something else, too: a challenge. Her mouth dried up. “A-are you – mocking me?”

“I’m asking you to declare yourself. We could be married within the hour, if you so chose.” His expression was neutral, his tone maddeningly even. He might have been offering her his seat on the omnibus.

She was suddenly at the edge of a precipice, fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Of course she wanted to marry James… someday. But now? Here? “I – I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, unable to meet his gaze.

“That is an answer in itself.” He sounded remarkably calm, but there was no missing the undercurrent of hurt in his voice.

She spun to face him fully, taking both his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, James. I love you, truly. And I want to marry you.”

“But not yet.”

“I’m just learning a whole new way of being. Can you picture yourself in my place?” Mary closed her eyes briefly, knowing that James certainly tried. He, of all people, was deeply sympathetic to the horrors of her childhood on the streets, her life as a juvenile housebreaker, her unexpected escape from the death sentence. She’d never been free to explain exactly how she’d been rescued by the Agency, but he knew enough. “After a childhood such as mine, I’m suddenly a woman of means. I can choose what to do with my days. I answer to nobody. Can you see why I might want a little more time for such selfish liberty? This is my first taste of true independence; the closest I’ll ever come to perfect freedom.” She paused. “It is selfish, I’ve no illusions that it’s anything else. But it’s a giddy, dizzying sort of freedom, and I want more time to explore it.”

After a few moments, he squeezed her fingers. “I think I do understand.” She felt limp with relief. “It’s too easy for me to forget. I answer only to George, and that’s as a business partner. There’s the usual fraternal bickering, I suppose, but I am very much my own man.”

She smiled. “That you are. And you’ve chosen a willful, stubborn, scandal-ridden disgrace of a fiancée.”

“Only the best, for me.”

“James.” Mary pulled him close. Too close, for perfect propriety. “Thank you.”

His finger glided against the curve of her cheek. “I can’t say, ‘my pleasure’.”

She smiled crookedly. “I do want to belong to you, one day. And to claim you as my own, as well.”

“I very much look forward to being claimed.” He glanced about furtively, then dipped his head to hers, kissing her briefly – all too briefly – on the lips. “Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm, so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong,” he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, and resuming their steady walking pace. “What would you say to your initials, in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?”

“No need,” she said with a laugh. “Once you’re mine, I won’t permit you to forget it.”

They walked on in a daze, utterly distracted by each other, and by visions of their future. It wasn’t until they heard church bells ringing the hour – it was already eleven – that Mary returned to the present. “Ought we to talk business?” she suggested, with a slight sigh.

“Sadly, yes. What news of ailing Mr. Colfax?” It was the last – and, admittedly, only second – item on their list of current cases.

“I’m afraid it’s bad: I’ve traced the purchase of three substantial amounts of arsenic over the past year directly to his wife.”

James whistled. “I thought it was supposed to be difficult to buy arsenic, now. There was all that administrative reform after the Bradford tragedy.” Less than two years earlier, there had been an accidental mass poisoning in the north, when arsenic was mistakenly included in a batch of peppermint sweets.

“In theory, yes. But all one need do is tell the chemist what it’s wanted for – everybody in the world wants it to kill rats – and sign the ledger.”

“Did she sign in her own name each time?”

“For the first lot, yes, which makes me wonder if the idea only came to her after the fact. But for the second and third purchases, which are more recent, she took care to use a false name and address. I’m certain it’s her, though. Not only does the handwriting match, but the chemists – she used a different shop each time – remembered her and described her with accuracy.”

“What’s next?”

“We still don’t know exactly how she’s doing it,” said Mary. “She’s not suffering from any sort of digestive upset, and neither are the domestics. It must be in something he alone consumes. Dissolved in the whisky, maybe, or perhaps he’s the only one who likes sugar in his coffee?”

“I’ll ask him to consider what it might be,” said James. As the male partner, he was also the public face of their fledgling detective firm – a concession to convention that seldom failed to irk Mary, if she dwelt upon it. “And perhaps he ought to take a short holiday. It would be useful to confirm that he doesn’t suffer these digestive horrors when he’s on his own; only when dear Mrs. Colfax presides over the menu.”

Mary nodded. “In the meantime, I doubt Mrs. Colfax is a threat to anybody else. Only to that very heavily insured husband of hers.”

They plodded on, contemplating the faithlessness of modern love and marriage. Their client was a frail and rather elderly bridegroom of three years – a doting husband until, after too many sudden and agonizing gastric attacks, he had slowly begun to suspect the worst. Before their marriage, Mrs. Colfax had been a lively young widow, handsome and sociable and absolutely penniless. Their marriage was just the sort of thing Mary had been taught to eschew at the unconventional Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The thing was, she thought, with just a little more patience, that fortune would pass legally to Mrs. Colfax. Yet she seemed reluctant to wait for it. Money had a way of spoiling people’s judgement.

Had it done the same to her? Mary thought half-guiltily of her own fortune, the gift of a grateful and generous Queen Victoria after Mary averted an attempt on her life. That lump of capital, while a tiny sum to the Queen, had changed her life entirely. It made her a woman of some means, a person with the power to shape her own life. It would also mark her as a potential target for small-time fortune-hunters, if word got out of her independence. Of course, when she married James, her money would become his property…

“What are you brooding about?” asked James. “You’re not planning to poison me with arsenic, are you?”

That raised a smile. “If anyone’s buying arsenic, it’s your precious housekeeper.”

James grinned. “I thought Mrs. V. had thawed towards you a bit.”

“A very little bit. You know, she might be the main impediment to our marriage.”

He shivered dramatically. “Absurd. The real impediment is that I’ll be a solid block of ice before you give me a definitive yes.”

“So much whinging!” said Mary, laughing again. “Are you really about to collapse from the cold? We could take a turn about the museum, now that our confidential business is concluded.”

“I wish we could,” said James, “but I’ve got to get back to the site. It’s payday for the men and I don’t like to be late. Next time, certainly. Or better yet, we’ll end in a coffee-house.”

They turned and walked briskly towards Mary’s small flat in Burton Crescent, picking their way carefully through the muck churned up by passing horses and carts. As he always did, James waited for her to extract her door key, then unlocked the front door and returned her key to her upturned palm.

This was the moment. She had to speak now. She tilted her face up to his and said, “I’ve a proposal to put to you.”

James batted his eyelashes and spoke in a quavering falsetto. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask.”

“You may regret saying that when you hear just what it is.”

“Is it so very dull?”

“Quite the reverse. Not to mention thoroughly unladylike and far from respectable.”

“We’ve waded through sewers, dangled from a bell-tower, and stumbled out of a burning building together. Can you top that?”

“Possibly.” Mary fumbled in her reticule and produced a torn half-sheet of paper. “I found this yesterday.”

“This” was a handbill for “Mr. Ching, a Chinese pugilist of noble extraction, closely related by blood to the Chinese Emperor”, who challenged “the sportsmen of England, Britannia’s athletes, all of Her Majesty’s skilled and subtlest fighters, to best him in an unarmed fight”, with the winner to receive a prize-purse of one pound. For the semi-literate, there was even an illustration of a determined-looking Chinese man, wearing loose robes and facing the reader in a fighting stance.

Curiosity lit James’s eyes. “‘Mr. Ching claims the superiority of Chinese hand-and-foot fighting’,” he read, “‘and promises ocular proof of such. Not only will Mr. Ching fight: he will take on all who present themselves.’ Are you planning to challenge the distinguished Mr. Ching, Mary?”

“Not as a combatant,” she admitted. “But I would dearly love to see him fight.”

James’s brows drew together in a frown. “The address is in Leicester Square. ‘Hazardous’ doesn’t begin to describe the place…”

“Hear me out,” she said, quickly. “The notice made me think of my father; after I saw it, I suddenly remembered being a child, watching him practice these very complicated chains of hand and foot movements. He claimed that when used at speed, they were more effective than most weapons. He promised to teach me, when I grew older.” She paused. “Then, of course, he disappeared.”

“I’ve heard of such a style of fighting,” allowed James. “But setting aside questions of safety and propriety for the time being, how will seeing this Mr. Ching affect you, do you think? Is it wise to revisit this sort of memory?”

“I’ve never claimed to be wise,” said Mary. “And I’ve no idea what the effect might be. Quite likely, it will be a crashing disappointment…”

“But you want to go. No. You intend to go.”

“Yes.” She drew a breath and looked up at James. “It’s tonight.”

His expression was scrupulously neutral. “The only women in the vicinity will be prostitutes. You’ll be in danger from the moment they see you.”

“I’ll go as a boy, of course.”

“The return of Mark Quinn?” He considered. “Still risky. You make rather a handsome lad.”

She hesitated. “Aren’t you going to scold me for doing something so inappropriate? We’ve been so thoroughly dull and forbearing for months now, and I’m jeopardizing all our hard work.”

“And what good would scolding you do?” His smile was crooked. “Besides, is that how you think of me, Mary? A stuffy killjoy, obsessed with what respectable people might think? A fusty old man who can’t quite understand how your mind works?” His mouth twisted. “Perhaps that’s why you don’t want to marry me.”

Mary was genuinely alarmed. “James, that’s not it at all. I know you want what’s best for me. For us. As for being a fusty old man… well. I’ve never once thought of you as either fusty or old.” She smiled up at him. “Believe me, I thoroughly appreciate your manliness.”

He permitted himself a small smile at that. Then, he lowered his voice. “Has it occurred to you that if we married now, you would be infinitely freer to do as you please?”

She blinked. “It hadn’t.” She paused, then spoke more slowly. “But now that I think of it, it’s only partially true. You can go to a boxing den at any time you please, on your own or with men friends. But if it was ever hinted that I’d gone, too, such a rumour could still threaten our social reputation as a married couple, or that of your family firm.”

He considered her words. “So it’s a larger problem we face. You will always want to exceed the limits of respectable feminine behaviour.”

She thought about it seriously. “Yes, I think I will. Sometimes, at least.” A pause. “And you? Will you always value propriety and a spotless reputation? Are those so dear to you?”

He was already shaking his head. “I respect those things for their utility. They make daily life smoother and easier, and I wanted your life – our life together – to be as free and pleasant as possible. But they are not paramount to me—” He was interrupted by the chiming of the nearby bells of the Church of St. Pancras. It was half-past eleven.

“You had better go pay your labourers.”

“Yes. But we need to finish this conversation, Mary.”

She nodded. “As for tonight. Will you come with me?”

“I suppose there’s no dissuading you.”

“No. I’ll go alone, if you prefer not to come.”

“Then how can I possibly refuse?”

She looked at him. “You ought to, really. You shouldn’t let me coerce you with threats of danger and scandal.”

“What if I just want to see you in breeches again?”

She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll call for you at eight.”

“Better if I meet you at the corner of Russell Square, I think.”

“Right.” Normally, James took his leave by kissing her hand, murmuring some tender endearment. Today, however, he chucked her under the chin. “Cheerio, Mark.”

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Mary Quinn, in new guise

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Good morning, friends. Um. It was -36 degrees C in Kingston this morning, if you factor in the wind chill. (That’s -32.8F, if you’re wondering.) I realize that’s just a regular winter day if you live in, say, Saskatoon, but I have never been happier to put on my merino longjohns. I feel sorry for everybody who has to work outdoors today. But I did NOT feel sorry for the FedEx guy, when he trudged (unhappily) up my path, bearing THIS!

Yes, it’s an early paperback copy of The Traitor in the Tunnel, which will release next month. And I know I’ve been in raptures about beautiful cover art recently, but I hope you’ll humour me (again) in admiring this one. Candlewick Press puts so much time and love into each book, and I’m incredibly fortunate to be published by them.

Until next week!

 

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A Spy in the House, redesigned!

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Hello, friends! I just received an absolutely wonderful surprise in the mail. (If you’re thinking that authors often receive delightful surprises in the mail, you’re right. As if we need another reason to feel privileged…) It was a bulging, oversized sack containing a envelope full of this:

Yes, that image is massive. Can you tell I’m excited? Ideally, I’d like to be able to see it from the moon.

This is the redesigned cover that’s now on the UK and Australian editions of A Spy in the House. The full cover looks like this:

I love everything about this cover: colour, font, background image, the Mary Quinn logo that looks like a cameo, the rubbed and weathered effect around the corners… I have one front and centre in my study and every time I glance at it, I smile.

The old cover, the first UK cover, looked like this:

I still think this is a strong cover. The gloves glow, the fonts are well chosen, and I love the map of London in the background. It’s also a great homage to classic mystery design (think Agatha Christie), which often shows key plot elements in a kind of still-life.

But this one? This one is a stunner. I’m so glad that my UK publisher, Walker Books, redesigned it for this new printing. And I’m ecstatic to know that it’s now out there, in bookstores.

What do you think? Thoughts, impressions, preferences?

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