7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. Lee

Title: The Traitor in the Tunnel

Author: Y.S. Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult

Publisher: Candlewick Press (US) / Walker (UK)
Publication Date: February 2012 (US) / August 2011 (UK)
Hardcover: 373 pages

Get steeped in suspense, romance, and high Victorian intrigue as Mary goes undercover at Buckingham Palace – and learns a startling secret at the Tower of London.

Queen Victoria has a little problem: there’s a petty thief at work in Buckingham Palace. Charged with discretion, the Agency puts quickwitted Mary Quinn on the case, where she must pose as a domestic while fending off the attentions of a feckless Prince of Wales. But when the prince witnesses the murder of one of his friends in an opium den, the potential for scandal looms large. And Mary faces an even more unsettling possibility: the accused killer, a Chinese sailor imprisoned in the Tower of London, shares a name with her long-lost father. Meanwhile, engineer James Easton, Mary’s onetime paramour, is at work shoring up the sewers beneath the palace, where an unexpected tunnel seems to be very much in use. Can Mary and James trust each other (and put their simmering feelings aside) long enough to solve the mystery and protect the Royal Family? Hoist on your waders for Mary’s most personal case yet, where the stakes couldn’t be higher – and she has everything to lose.

Stand alone or series: Book 3 in The Agency series

How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher

Why did I read this book: I am a huge fan of this historical mystery series. From its wonderfully strong heroine to its wonderful appreciation for setting, I am on a yearly lookout for the next Agency book. And, of course, I was thrilled when the lovely Y.S. Lee asked to include us on The Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour!

**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN THE AGENCY SERIES. If you have not read books 1 & 2, and you wish to stay unspoiled, look away now! You have been warned.**


After the events of The Body at the Tower, Mary Quinn finds herself a full graduate of the Academy and an official operative of The Agency. Her first official assignment, however, is the somewhat disappointing mission to discover the identity of a petty thief, responsible for nicking a number of trinkets in the residence of Queen Victoria and her family at Buckingham Palace. Undercover as a parlor maid, Mary dutifully dives into her official role and is set on discovering the identity of the thief. Her investigation, however, leads her to an even more intriguing mystery when the police turn up at the palace, unannounced, bearing with them the shell-shocked heir prince Bertie. During a typical night of drinking and entertainment with the less than reputable Sir Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth, the prince and his friend made an ill-advised trip to a seedy opium den – a trip that would end with the murder of Beaulieu-Buckworth at the hands of an opium-crazed Chinese sailor, Jin Hai Lang. Mary’s long lost father, presumed dead at sea.

Reeling from this dramatic news, Mary is determined to figure out the truth of her father’s incarceration, but her path is anything but clear. With tensions brewing at Agency headquarters and the infuriating James Easton reappearing in her life, complicating matters even more, Mary also knows that something secret and sinister is happening at Buckingham Palace. With a suspected traitor in the midst, Mary’s first job is anything but simple.

Building on characters and plot threads introduced in A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel picks up the intrepid Mary Quinn’s story and throws a slew of new complications in the mix. From a pure storytelling and plotting perspective, this third entry is somewhat uneven. The mystery aspects of the novel – that of Mary’s father’s imprisonment, that of the petty thief in the palace, and that of the larger treasonous plot afoot – feel scattered, with many stops and starts that don’t quite gel together in a cohesive whole. The eponymous Traitor in the Tunnel, truly the overarching mystery of the book, is sort of haphazardly thrown together and comes to a dissatisfying conclusion.1 Criticism concerning the logic of the plot aside, however, The Traitor in the Tunnel is an incredibly readable book and as engaging as ever, fraught with action and danger and steeped in mystery. I couldn’t put the book down, even while my brain cataloged some of the less-appealing aspects of the plot.

The reason why The Traitor in the Tunnel succeeds is not because of the strength of its plotting, but rather because of the strength of its heroine. As always, I love the premise of this series, taking the Victorian time period and adding a group of women who refuse to accept society’s imposed roles and amass their own power and agency – literally. As with the prior two books, The Traitor in the Tunnel explores these societal expectations and the women that both embrace and defy it (including the figure of Queen Victoria herself). Mary’s story in this third book is the most cathartic of all her adventures to date as she comes face to face with her lost father and is forced to reconcile her memories of Lang Jin Hai with reality. I love that Mary’s reunion with her father is not glamorized, and that Jin Hai is not exonerated for his crime or his addiction. More importantly, I LOVE the exploration of Mary’s heritage and sense of self-perception and identity in this novel (I have been waiting for this to be addressed in the series with more scrutiny!), as she has to make a choice about revealing her heritage in a London where “Asiatics” (and half-breeds like Mary) are seen as hated, inferior foreigners.

Mary’s soul-searching especially comes into play with her relationship with the infuriating/loveable James Easton. I won’t say much about anything that happens, except that their romantic relationship is FINALLY played through to resolution – but you’ll have to see for yourself if that is a good or a bad resolution. In any case, as always, I love the chemistry between James and Mary, with the both of them as incredibly stubborn and strong-willed as they are. Other familiar faces also make appearances in this installment – Felicity, Anne, the irritatingly charming Octavius Jones.

Overall, the series’ overarching plot is advanced with dramatic news at the close of the book with the future of the Agency at risk, some wonderful romantic developments, and plenty of loose ends to be explored. In short, while The Traitor in the Tunnel is not a perfect book, it is a very good one, and I cannot wait for the next Mary Quinn mystery.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:

The interview was over, bar the formalities. Mary let out a long, silent breath she hadn’t known she was holding until that moment. She raised her shoulders and willed her tense muscles to soften. Outside this room, the day was starting. Servants would soon be rising. It was cutting it fine, but she ought to have time to return to the bedroom before her roommate woke.

“A moment, Commissioner.” Queen Victoria’s voice sliced through Mary’s thoughts. “What is the name of this opium fiend – the murderer?”

“It’s a Chinese name, Your Majesty. Difficult to say, even assuming he gave his real name.”

“Do your best.”

A pause. Then, haltingly, “It’s Lang.”

Mary caught her breath. The blood in her veins seemed to freeze for a long moment, then resume its course with a drunken swoop. Foolish, she scolded herself. Utter coincidence. Lang was a common-enough Chinese surname. What did it matter that it was the same as hers – the real name she’d abandoned, yet another fragment of her lost childhood?

“Why, there are Englishmen named Lang.” Prince Albert sounded the ‘g’ in Lang, making the name hard and Teutonic, not tonal and Chinese. “The name is of German origin.”

“It’s the rest of his name that gives trouble, Your Highness,” said Blake with an air of apology. “His Christian names – although I doubt he’s a Christian. It’s something like Jinn High.”

Mary swayed and caught desperately at the window-sill for balance, suddenly knocked dizzy by two syllables.

“Jinn what?”

“Spelled J-i-n H-a-i, Your Majesty. Jin Hai Lang.”

Her pulse roared in her ears, so loudly she could scarcely hear the Queen’s terse thanks and dismissal.

Jin Hai Lang, a Lascar in Limehouse.

Lang Jin Hai, his name in Chinese.

An opium addict.

A murderer.

And, unless she’d gone completely mad…

Her father.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook & kobo

  1. It’s kind of like playing the game Clue, only to realize that little ‘confidential’ envelope contains Chance cards from Monopoly instead of the villain, weapon, and room. (Ok. That’s a weak comparison. I accept that.)


  • Misti
    March 2, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Great review. I agree with your comments about the plot but I also love this series and find it highly enjoyable and just plain entertaining. I couldn’t wait for the US edition so I bought the UK edition from the Book Depository months ago. 🙂
    I was so happy to see a fourth book was listed on goodreads. I can’t wait!

  • amy
    March 2, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Like any historical novel that I read, I did question the historical accuracy of some parts of THE TRAITOR IN THE TUNNEL by YS Lee. It’s only right that I do. But whatever questions that popped up in my head were soon squashed, once I remembered Lee’s background. She has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture! I love that I can put my trust in an author’s writing to be historically accurate.

    Fans of the Agency series by YS Lee will be satisfied with the third installment without a doubt. And of course, I definitely did my fan girl dance when I found out that there is a fourth book in the works.

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