Article published on May 5, 2017.
London, 1905. Margaret Trant lives with her ailing, irascible mother in a dreary boarding house in St John’s Wood. The pair have fallen on hard times, with only Margaret’s meagre salary from a ramshackle import-export company keeping them afloat.
When a stranger on the tram hands her a newspaper open at the recruitment page, Margaret spots an advertisement that promises to ‘open new horizons beyond your wildest dreams!’ After a gruelling interview, she finds herself in a new position as a secretary in a dingy backstreet shop.
But all is not as it seems; she is in fact working for a highly secret branch of the intelligence service, Bureau 8, whose mission is to track down and neutralise a ruthless band of anarchists known as the Scorpions.
Margaret’s voracious reading of detective fiction has scarcely prepared her for the reality of criminality. Her journey of self-discovery forms the heart of this remarkable novel, as she discovers in herself resourcefulness, courage, independence and the first stirrings of love.
Menczer conveys the fog and grime of Edwardian London in an espionage thriller that evokes the humdrum dinginess of spywork as it alternates with thrilling danger, in a manner characteristic of John le Carré. Margaret Trant is a heroine to remember.
Continuing the noirish theme of the latest issue of nb magazine and always championing exciting new debut talent we’re delighted to present An Unlikely Agent by Jane Menczer as our next nudge Recommended Read – which means we have a limited number of copies available from the nudge shop, for just the price of p&p (UK only; while stocks last).
We asked Jane to introduce her novel for our readers:
An Unlikely Agent is an adventure story set in early 1900s London and Devon. My heroine, Miss Trant, is a hapless young secretary who finds herself drawn into a netherworld of secret agents and nefarious wrongdoers. I hope that you will enjoy following the journey of the heroine as she gradually changes from being a timid, repressed secretary with an unhappy domestic life to become an enterprising and courageous secret agent who has fallen deeply in love for the first time.
Though I now live and teach in Cambridgeshire, I spent almost a decade in London fascinated by the layers of history that coexist there and I’m especially drawn to the Edwardian period, the beginning of the modern age. Seacombe, the novel’s Devon town, recalls my childhood holidays in the area. Finally, An Unlikely Agent is partly an homage to writers I love: Conrad, Buchan, Dickens, Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. I feel a great affection for the well-worn conventions of the adventure story and I hope you enjoy my take on them, a sort of Girls Own adventure.
Reviewer Glenda Worth approves, giving it a 4* rating:
An Unlikely Agent by Jane Menczer is an old school murder mystery spy thriller. Set in Edwardian London, amongst the foggy backstreets with detailed descriptions and character features. Margaret is an innocent girl living with her mother in a lodging house, where the landlady produces some tasteless food and surroundings, after falling on hard times after the death of her father. Going to work at the Bureau opens her eyes to another life, which she integrates into, gradually taking on more serious work. A complicated novel which requires some concentration to work out the story but is worth persevering with. Trying to work out who are the bad guys and who the good is all part of the process. Margaret is on her own journey of self discovery becoming an independent young woman and having the first stirrings of love which are well written bearing in mind the restraints of Edwardian England. Having to cope with an elderly mother wears Margaret down but she is totally bereft when she dies, a common response to the relationship between mother and daughter through all time. The description of the foggy beach in Cornwall (Ed. or possibly Cornwall, ref. Jane’s intro above!) sets the scene for the action there, in contrast to the streets of London, with the caves and sea. I enjoyed reading An Unlikely Agent and immersing myself in Margaret’s Edwardian lifestyle and while it was complicated in parts remembering who the characters were, this was offset by the delightful innocence of Margaret’s life until she became involved in the Bureau.
Don’t miss out – get your copy of An Unlikely Agent by Jane Menczer from the nudge shop, while stocks last!
About the author
Jane Menczer was born in Winchester and now lives in Cambridge. She has worked in a West End theatre, as a nanny, as a waitress, and as a bookseller. Working with Germaine Greer on her dissertation awakened an interest in all the talented and heroic woman from other eras who have been overlooked or forgotten, and directly influenced the creation of the character of Miss Trant. Jane currently teaches drama at a comprehensive school near Cambridge. An Unlikely Agent is her first novel.
An Unlikely Agent by Jane Menczer, published on 11 May, 2017 by Polygon, in paperback
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