Mission Taylor & Rose. Spies In St. Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

Taylor and Rose Secret Agents Katherine Woodfine

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!

Read my previous Mission for Peril in Paris here!

Mission Report incoming…. (minor spoilers possible)

Taylor & Rose Spies in St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine
Cover and interior illustrations by the amazing Karl J Mountford

It is mid-September 1911 and Sophie is still not home. Lil has been tracking down the Caselli dragon paintings one by one and overhears a conversation between The Chief and Forsyth stating they lost contact with Sophie in St Petersburg, Lil is both angry and desperate.

When tasked with a mission to Hamburg to collect information she decides that she is prepared to put everything Taylor & Rose has worked for on the line and defy her orders by travelling on to St Petersburg, because there is no Taylor and Rose without Sophie.

Taylor & Rose Spies in St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine
Extract from my Mission notebook

Initial Thoughts

Aaaaaaaahh I love this because this period and place in History is one of my favourites, I even taught Russia in Revolution at A level in my ‘past life’ as a History Teacher. 

Russia in 1911 is a bubbling cauldron of disaster with the elite bickering amongst themselves, the lower classes smouldering with resentment and rage for change and a fatalist distant Tsar insistent on retaining autocratic rule to the cost of everything.

This setting is so exciting because it is so politically potent and dangerous especially in the days after the assassination of Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin, and spying within Russia during the Triple Entente as The Anglo-Russian Convention had been signed to relax tensions and end the Imperial competition in Central Asia. I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing how Katherine unpacks the socio-political context at middle grade comfort level.

I’m also totally going to want to geek out as I am already impressed at how Katherine is weaving in the long and medium term causes of World War I (outside of her fictional one!!). Just the casual addition of the exchange in Hamburg being about the Shipbuilding echoes later in the Count’s discussion of how the Kaiser is jealous of the British Army and builds a synergistic web of causation in the reader’s mind. 

Plot wise OOOOOH CIRCUS!! And JOE and Lil! 

But more importantly something is going on at SSB. We are certainly being directed to be suspicious of Carruthers, but is this a red herring because he must be frustrated watching young girls go out into the field whilst he stays behind a desk? Or is it a double bluff? 

Having completed my read and made notes as I go along there are several points I want to cover. 

Historical Immersion

Once again Katherine has an exquisite hand in evoking this period and place. I have been to St Petersburg myself so places I had seen, albeit nearly a century apart, was exciting to visualise Nevsky Prospekt and more before the bullet holes. 

I’ve already touched on much of the historical context that excites me and I’m pleased to say Katherine weaves a beautiful web of real world causation dangling from a fictional puppet master tugging and working the strings to being about war because let’s be honest, everyone loves a conspiracy theory. 

And for me the delicious part of that is how Stolypin’s assassination frames the time of the plot and it’s context is echoed in the circus scenes as well as the real world rumours of the murder being an ‘inside job’ (the Tsar personally halted the judicial investigation into the assassination) which is played out where the students are set up to conduct a terror attack when the police have already been informed. It’s a beautiful touch as whilst it doesn’t quite make a historical theory it alludes to the complexities of the world within which the story occurs.

Taylor & Rose Spies in St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

Trust

Trust is a key theme within Spies in St Petersburg in many degrees with double agents and secret plots to trusting co-workers and even feelings.

Double agents is a big theme echoing the discovery in Peril in Paris that Professor Blaxland was informing both Britain and Germany except the stakes are raised now we have at least one double agent in SSB.  Someone has been intercepting the diplomatic bags from the Embassy but it’s now clear this is happening in London and inside the SSB as Joe has shown as information is being passed to the Daily Picture. 

Is that really what you think of me?

Carruthers to Lil.

Lil is initially suspicious of Carruthers, his disappearance, his listening hole and his placement within SSB as the double agent- we have been lead to believe Carruthers is innocent thanks to both the London action and Carruthers’ behaviour in St Petersburg- but I’m a suspicious person and I’m reserving judgment on this matter until I’m proven otherwise, although his patriotism is clearly strong… unless that’s an act… OH POO!.

More on Carruthers, He and Lil had to learn to trust each other and much of Carruthers’ pomposity come from anxiety, fear and a need to prove himself, which when released reveals skills and abilities in each other that are surprising and cause each other to think. I would be wondering if we had an enemies to lovers trope here if it wasn’t for Joe.

Then there’s the other side of trust. 

Lil becomes angry at the beginning because the Chief has been keeping her in the dark about Sophie and other parts of the mission, she feels used and belittled as the Chief believes it will cloud her judgment.

The irony of this is that espionage only works if the fewest people possible are ‘in’ on the whole picture, and that often somethings are ‘need to know’ basis and just above your pay grade for the safety of an individual, maybe even you or perhaps the nation. Furthermore, knowing Sophie was missing in St Petersburg DID cloud Lil’s judgement as she immediately plans a rescue mission. 

However, on the other hand we couldn’t trust the Chief would have sent someone after Sophie in time because Lil is right to a degree, a spy is an asset and whilst must be protected for the information they hold but ultimately they are a tool and designed to be at high risk with the possibility of capture and death – which brings us back to ‘need to know’ status.

We don’t have safety nets here

Ravi to Lil

The Turning of The World

I struggled with naming this section as it is rather complex and it links back to the Historical immersion.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, the world had undergone rapid change.

  • Principates had become nations such as Germany and Italy and nations had become Empires such as Britain and France.
  • Land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few, and great wealth had been amassed by Industrialists from the middle classes often dwarfing that of Aristocracy challenging the ‘old’ rules of class.
  • The rights of children to education was beginning to be recognised such as in the Liberal Reforms in Britain and the poor were realising they wanted better, or a slice of the pie. 

However places like Russia had not changed since Medieval times with the agrarian economy still strip farming. Stolypin had wanted to change this and empower the peasant farmers to a landowning class but it was challenged – a legacy that later under Early Communism would lead to famine and, in the Ukraine, Holodomor when the agricultural system was forced through. 

The world was teetering on a precipice; the comfort of old world tradition and an avalanche of change brought by so many factors and overall powerful old white men were not coping very well, and some were behaving badly. Katherine captures the essence of this feuding world fizzing between those who wanted to preserve their own power and prestige against those demanding rights, empowerment and change.

We see this through the passionate political discussions between Mitya, his friends and parents even between staunch traditionalist Boris and wary but recognising need for change Vera capturing perfectly the social situation that explodes into Revolution when the failures of war impact on the nation.

But there are other indicators too:

  • A female circus owner who dresses in men’s clothes and not only hires a female strongwoman but demand humane treatment of animals and the acts they perform.
  • The frustrations at the uptight and stuffy Debutante Balls and the limitations of social interaction forced by etiquette when teenagers really want to go out and dance at places like Café Royale.
Taylor & Rose Spies in St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine
Extract from my Mission Notebook

Yearning

Linked hugely with the previous, yearning is a major theme within Spies in St Petersburg but goes far beyond the ‘greater’ communal yearning for socio-political change and comes down to the individual.

  • Lil yearns to find Sophie- the pain of missing her is ‘like a stomach ache’ she feels like something in her life is missing and mirrors Sophie’s emotions in Peril In Paris when she was not informed of Lil’s safety during the Arnovian mission.
  • Sophie’s grief is awoken by her interactions with Vera, a woman in turn grieving for her daughter. The tender moments between the two dorks of the constancy of grief, no matter the time passed. It also shows how little movements can make even an old pain feel new and yet can preserve the memory and feel of the lost person.
  • Carruthers clearly longs to prove himself to the Chief, his own grandfather. ‘He has a tendency to think of me simply as his grandson…still just a schoolboy in short trousers’ which may go to explain his grumpiness at being stuck filing which young girls go off on exciting missions.
  • Lil and Joe is very exciting and sweet to see the blossoming of emotions here. Lil realises how much she cares for Joe and recognises change has taken place. Joe equally realises he has changed in that he actually yearns for something greater than he expected to be, for a future for the first time… but wonders if a girl like Lil would ever want to ‘slum it’ with him… of course dependent on whether he survives or not.
  • Even The Count Wilderstein yearns for the life he has lost thanks to his wife’s involvement with the Fraternitas.

I have no wish to start a war…have pity on an old man who has already lost almost everything he has

The Count to Sophie

Looking forward

(WARNING! minor spoilers if you haven’t read it!!) 

  • JOE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! on SO many levels.
  • Who is the double agent? Who did Joe follow? And are they working alone? I was right things were closer to home but this is now in the open.
  • Whilst I may be wrong I don’t think things are quite over regarding Carruthers whether it is he is another double agent or he becomes a love triangle for Lil (enemy to lovers) or substitute for Joe and worse both and he IS actually a double agent!!! Unless this is projection on my part because I find Carruthers strangely interesting as a character!
  • What is going on at The Daily Picture? Is Norton Fraternitas? Was he at the house with Sir Edwin Grenville at the beginning or someone else? 

Have you read Spies in St Petersburg?

Are you joining in on Mission Taylor & Rose?

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2 thoughts on “Mission Taylor & Rose. Spies In St. Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

    1. I am rather excited for this as I’m at a historical disadvantage – I don’t know much about this time setting there so will be interesting for me

      Liked by 1 person

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