In case you missed my mission statement post, I’m undertaking a reading marathon to enjoy all four mysteries in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series leading up to the blog tour celebrating the publication of the finale Nightfall in New York!
Mission Report incoming…. (minor spoilers possible)
It’s the summer of 1911, eighteen months after the events of The Midnight Peacock and the ladies of Taylor & Rose Detective Agency have been recruited into the clandestine government agency The Secret Service Bureau.
In Paris the SSB asset Professor Blaxland has been murdered in a botched burglary, but suspicions are his cover was blown and his research on codes and ciphers is in the wind. Sophie is tasked with going undercover as his niece Miss Celia Blaxland to probe the situation.
Meanwhile in a claustrophobic castle in the mountains of Aldovia, 13 year old Princess Anna is extremely suspicious of her and the Crown Prince’s new, fun loving, young governess. Especially because her spectacles are fake…..
My initial thoughts on reading the opening chapters of Peril in Paris were already making theories about the assassination of Alex and Anna’s parents, the governess, and how these stories will converge.
I loved the immediate action, tension and thrill factor, this is not a ‘slow-burner’, and reflects the potential danger of espionage.
I also adored that Katherine took the time to touch upon beloved characters from the Sinclair series that weren’t playing a big part in this book from Joe being the getaway driver in an thrilling scene, the role of Mei in the agency, the continuing support of the Lims and generosity of Mr Sinclair, reference to the Pendleton’s honeymoon and Billy being office manager and perfect personal shopper for Sophie to transform into the fashionable heiress Miss Celia Blaxland. I am also so pleased that Katherine sent Tilly to UCL to study, what an act of revolution!
Whilst Sophie and Lil took centre stage Sinclairs was always rich in its ensemble, and although the focus has tightened further to the girls in this series, it’s good to see that the other characters are not forgotten.
Having completed my read and made notes as I go along there are three things that particularly stand out to me in Peril in Paris and I wonder how they will play out across the series.
Evocation of Time and Place
Katherine works intensely to evoke an authentic feel of 1911, whether that is in London, Paris or the fictional Bavarian state of Aldovia.
Katherine is a master of full sensory immersion from the bustling hush of Sinclairs, the scent of Gard du Nord to the hot and frenzied atmosphere of the Grand Tour airfield. She orientates the reader in a rich experience that leads them by the hand and imagination into the world that Sophie and Lil live and operate within by assembling the real sensory experiences a child reader could recall and arranging them to evoke a sense of atmosphere and space.
There’s also a wealth of historical research behind this, to accurately present these physical settings but also to create a sense of time.
The assassination of Alex and Anna’s parents bears similarities in both event and consequence as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie, only the fictional murders did not kickstart The Great War. Even the choices of the royal siblings names allude to dynastic tragedy evoking Prince Alexei and Anastasia of Russia.
The late Edwardian and pre-war era is often seen as The Last Summer of Innocence, a golden age before the slaughter of the trenches and a generation slain, and the grandiose fashions, the obscene wealth on display in the Grand Hotel Continental, and Forsyth for example in the fashionable dinner and £10,000 prize fund (£1.2 million by today’s rates) allude to this experience being of the aristocratic and upper middle classes of the time, but of course history is much more complex than that.
People will do strange things for money…or power
The Great War was an event that came from many causal factors and events bubbling away for at least two generations, and the glamour and rose tinted Golden Age belies the socio-economic and political dissatisfaction boiling away within countries as different groups are beginning to awaken before the nightmare of war is a real catalyst for change.
This situation is reflected not only in the plot but is also the beauty of Katherine’s depiction of a diverse and changing Edwardian Britain. This is not pandering or tipping the hat to 21st century calls for diversity in children’s literature it is an actual proven Historical fact that there were developed, both settled and born and bred communities of Black, Indian and Asian heritage in the UK for centuries before Windrush and later Migration events of the later 20th Century.
It would not have been strange for women of different races to be neighbours, friends and to work alongside each other, and there is historical evidence of mixed race marriages being reasonably commonplace, though of course often not deemed ‘good matches’ in higher and aspirational society circles.
Furthermore Black and Asian British women were visible, active and fought for socio-political change as much as their more famous middle class white counterparts.Tilly could certainly be real.
But Katherine has a particular gift for not merely evoking a time but reaching across into timelessness. We see historical touristy references such as Baedeker’s Guide to Paris, yet equally there are activities a tourist may do today such as visiting Notre Dame, book rummaging on the Left Bank or seeking out a Cabaret. We also see a meta-experience as Sophie ponders if this is the Paris her mother recorded in her travel journals as a child in the 1880s.
These sections do not simply orientate the reader in a snapshot of time and place , it reaches across and humanises the past, that regardless of trends, fashions, technologies, politics we could pause and consider in hopes, dreams, in attitudes at heart and spirit we are not so different from our ancestors.
The social experiences (particularly of women and girls)
Katherine Woodfine tracks the social shifts that have been occurring in the 19th century and inherited in the world of 1911 through the growing dissatisfaction and frustration at the experiences of women at all stations of life and class, and how change was pricking at the heels of tradition with suffragettes and Marie Curie challenging the ideas of ‘women’s work’.
Miss Celia Blaxland could be as independent and modern as she liked, but everyone she met was still trying to tell her what to do and what to think
Undulating beneath the action and espionage is the wry observation of what it meant to be female in 1911.
- Tilly is hesitant to be Sophie’s even fake lady’s maid having thrown off the mantle of domestic service and now a student.
- Sophie observes how despite Celia Blaxland’s modernity and independence, men constantly try to limit and control her and the freedom of being able to stroll down the road and breathe the fresh air dressed as a French boy but could never as Celia.
- Anna is perpetually frustrated at the limited life of a Princess she will lead of decorum and perfect etiquette when she dreams of being a regular boarding school girl. Her only power, like so many royal women before her is in secrets, a currency of leverage in knowing about secrets, whether passages or affairs.
- And Lil is angry that no matter how hard she works, what danger she puts herself in, what she achieves a man like Forsyth will take the credit and still believe women have no place in espionage.
Even taking the Countess into the picture, she is grasping onto old values of tradition and decorum that gave her power, prestige and respect whilst progressivism and modern world marches on through her life, and she has no voice or power other than….
Thrilling action and mystery
Oh the spy thriller factor is intensely good.
I love the Bond-esque action sequences in their cinematic glory such as Sophie in the station or the aerial field showdown. Katherine manages to create pacy yet very visual action pieces punctuating the longer sections that focus on peeling away clues and building delicious tension.
The plot itself is fantastic, I mean, I do love a spy plot anyway on film or in book but Katherine is really good at building the tension in the palace in particular so we feel the same claustrophobia and worries as Anna.
Furthermore, we get a tender look at Sophie’s inner world as she struggles with self doubt yet must act poised and calm. This is a lovely touch for young readers that they too can see characters struggle and they too can ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.
The complexity of the mystery is an interesting one, as this is very much the ‘shadows in the dark’ stage of the overarching story. There is clearly much more to come, it isn’t neatly wrapped up in a bow, ginger pops all round kind of adventure.
The whispers of clues spread throughout that will lead us in the future and references back to the Sinclair Mysteries was exciting and welcome yet the young reader would not feel out of their depth with the lack of resolution and ‘obviousness’ in the plot..
(WARNING! minor spoilers if you haven’t read it!!)
- The reemerging of an old enemy but evolved in fresh new territory- who is behind the fraternitas?
- Is there someone closer to home?
- The Grey Man is such a personality he has to play some part in coming stories
- Book two will HAVE to have focus on finding Sophie and whatever happened to the book.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m off to uncover some Spies in St Petersburg.