Mary Quinn is still working for the Agency, albeit this time as a senior agent. She has been assigned to the Palace, working as a chambermaid, to investigate the theft of a number of trinkets from the palace. Since the palace is full of trinkets, it seems the thief is someone in the palace, perhaps a servant. But as the Queen doesn't want to place the blame unfairly on a culprit, she asks the Agency to investigate.
The Agency is a private detective Agency staffed and run by women, as women are more likely to be perceptive and to be overlooked as agents, since it is assumed that any detective agency will hire men. But the two women in charge of the Agency, Anne Treleaven and Felicity Frame, warn her that Mary's old compatriot and sometimes foe, James Easton, has been employed by the crown to investigate the sewers that lie underneath the palace of Buckingham, itself converted from an older manor that was given to the crown.
But before Mary can be recalled to the Agency, she discovers that the Crown Prince was involved in an attack that killed a nobleman in an opium den. The Prince, Albert, says he cannot remember what happened, but that The Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth was involved in an altercation with a Lascar, an elderly one, and ended his life facedown on the floor with a knife buried in his chest. The Lascar in question has been arrested, but some question remains if he intended to attack the Prince or The Honorable Ralph, who has a reputation for unsavory pastimes, and his taking the Prince to an opium den is full proof of that. Nevertheless, the Queen wants the question answered, and when Mary hears the name of the Lascar who supposedly attacked and killed the Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth, she is struck speecheless- the man's name is Lang Jin Hai, and once upon a time, she knew him as "father".
As soon as she hears that he has been blamed for the attack on the Honorable Ralph and the Prince, she knows she has to reveal herself to him and save him from being killed for his crime. But at the same time, she must also keep her true parentage from those around her, as those of Chinese descent are seen as less than human, and her own half-Chinese parentage would lead to her being tarred with the same brush. But as she continues playing the role of a maid, she finds that the Prince is attracted to her for her seeming sympathy with his plight. But does he just want her sympathy or is he only out to get more from Mary?
Mary also finds herself worried about her bosses at the Agency, who are increasingly quarreling over the details of running the agency. If they decide to go their separate ways, what will happen to the agency? Will there even BE an Agency? And what about James, the man she secretly loves? What is going on in the tunnels beneath the palace, and do she and James have any chance of saving the Queen should it come to that? Why is someone else interested in the tunnels, and who is behind a possible plot to kill the Queen and the entire Royal Family? And can Mary convince her father to talk to her and tell her the truth about her heritage, and can she save his life from a septic wound that could easily kill him?
I love this series, but this book had the air of "last book in a trilogy" type feeling to it. I don't know if there will be more books after this, as pretty much all the problems that Mary has- that James doesn't know about her heritage, that the two women who saved her from the gallows, and who mean everything to her, as well as employ her, might be on their way to breaking up- and taking the Agency apart with their split- is solved at the end of the book. I mean, there could be more books after this, but the main narrative thrust behind the series is gone- that the Agency is made up of only women. Perhaps we could see stories about other agents?
The book begins by standing several things on their head, including the image that Queen Victoria projects in all known images of her- stolid, sober, and almost positively unfriendly. We also get to see Prince Albert Edward Victor, and he's not a very admirable figure- and neither are the other men he surrounds himself with. He's also pitifully naive, much as James was at the start of the series. But like Mary, James has grown a lot- finally recovered from his disastrous trip to India, he gets to play an extremely heroic role in the story, and there may be hope for a relationship between him and Mary by the end.
I don't know if this is the last book in the series or not. But I did enjoy it tremendously, and I hope to read more about Mary (and James), and if not them, some other girl at the Agency. I'm not sure I'd want them all to be romance-focused, though- maybe more actual spying and derring-do. In any event, I have no problems recommending this book and this series. Highly recommended.