Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Let there be light

The Crown Agent & Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace

A Review by Valerie Beattie

The Crown Agent
Stephen O’Rourke
Sandstone Press (2020)

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace
Olga Wojtas
Saraband (2020)

With an ethos of keeping “the home fire burning” ingrained in their history, lighthouses brandish a humanitarian intent to guide sailors safely ashore, a function dating from the Pharos of Alexandria in the third century BC. Over time, a fissure emerged between the lighthouse as a humanitarian symbol – a beacon of hope and salvation to industrious sailors – and its role in imperial and commercial gain. Stephen O’Rourke’s The Crown Agent sails into the turbid waters of this tension, beginning in January 1829 in the Firth of Clyde.

Since the hardback publication in November 2019, O’Rourke’s debut novel has received positive reviews, and rightly so. Its settings, pace and plot lines have drawn comparisons with Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The protagonist, Dr Mungo Lyon, has captivated readers’ imaginations to the point of hoping to see more of him. 

O’Rourke executes dialogue and description well, and the picture drawn of nineteenth-century Glasgow is rich in sensory detail. Regular utilisation of cliffhangers and mystery signposting keep readers’ curiosity piqued while Mungo establishes himself as a character as keen on drama as it is on him. And O’Rourke intends to start as he means to go on with respect to these generic elements as Dr Lyon delivers the foreword to his recollections of a life of secrets and missions in true theatrical manner. Now more than 50 years older, The Crown Agent takes place when he is 27.

The narrative’s inaugural event depicts a schooner floundering in the Firth of Clyde. Sandy, the lighthouse keeper, rushes out into the midnight storm, frantic to light the beacon but, before he can fulfil his duty, his head meets with the fatal blow of an axe. His murder and the failure to save the Julietta ignite the stick of dynamite that will start the intrepid Mungo blasting through assorted protocols and courtesies as he takes on his new role as the Crown’s secret agent, unwavering in his quest to expose Sandy’s killer and the reason for the loss of the Julietta.  

Mungo’s narrative occurs during the height of the East India Company’s rule. He is a curious protagonist yet more interesting for it. For example, one of his eccentric skills is that he builds his sister’s wheelchairs. Born in India, he and Margaret are sent as children to live with their grandfather in Edinburgh. At some point their father returns, only to disappear in 1826. With this background it is perhaps unsurprising that Mungo has a flair for the dramatic. Yet, what is notable for a man of science (he is a surgeon) is the way he contradicts himself on matters connected to establishing his reliability. For example, he purports to respect his profession yet secretly wishes to abandon it as it bores him; and, although presenting himself as competent, he quickly reveals that one of his patients died at his hands. His expressions regarding immigrants reveal a number of prejudices around nationality and class, and he is the student and friend of the disgraced anatomist, Dr Robert Knox.

Hence, there is scant surprise when Mungo abruptly departs his profession (and sister) without a backward glance. Thereafter, the narrative progresses with Bugatti-like speed propelling readers through the many mazes of his new role, and O’Rourke does well illustrating the trials and shocks experienced by this newly-employed spy. Of greater interest are those points when the narrative touches on the dark side of Scotland’s imperial prosperity, on the politics of the trade routes and the significant abuses of power in this time of global expansion in Britain. These provide glimpses of more penetrating content, something which, perhaps, may develop in future adventures

The pace of Mungo’s unrelenting quest for the traitor/s never slackens, and one of the most electrifying elements in his story is his brother-in-arms on the mission, and the man who saved his life. A little like the complexity inherent in the symbol of the lighthouse as a beacon of rescue, the darkness and light surrounding this character illuminates how pliant moral codes become when matters of commerce are the true beacons for governments.

In place of adventures in imperialist Scotland we have, in Olga Wojtas’ Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, a tale of gothic adventure in nineteenth-century France. This is the second in the Miss Blaine series but this reviewer’s introduction to Shona MacMonagle, the 50-something prefect and graduate of Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls (famed by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). While vampires time travel by virtue of their endless lives, Shona’s century hopping occurs in response to missions identified by the ghostly Miss Blaine. Despite the novel’s title Shona’s mission is revealed only in chapter 12, by which time the “cisgender” heroine has arrived in a coffin, attacked the mayor, been arrested, imprisoned and displayed pedagogic and artistic talents enough to put the village to shame. 

As the name intimates, Sans-Soleil is an ideal location for vampires. It contains a forbidden forest through which the fearless Shona treks in order to reach the plainly Gothic castle of Lord Erroll. Despite his red eyes, toothache, revulsion for both garlic and the merest hint of light, our crème de la crème heroine has more interesting things on her mind than thoughts of the undead. Indeed, their encounter could be said to encapsulate the book’s tone in that, instead of being in a state of horror, fear and awe, Shona’s focus is on milk for her tea. Seeing the lord’s penurious offer, she recalls a joke: “… Chic Murray in a guesthouse, picking up one of those wee jars of honey and saying to the landlady, ‘I see you keep a bee.’” 

The objective of her quest is revealed two chapters before the novel’s denouement and, with little time to spare, Shona focuses on putting the world of Sans-Soliel to rights. Thus, readers’ journey through a comic interpretation of the Gothic that is definitely idiosyncratic draws to a close. With order – and light – restored to the village, Shona finds herself transported back to her workplace and, once again, slips effortlessly into her unassuming life as a librarian. But one senses that, as night follows day, Marcia Blaine will activate her prefect again when only her eccentric views and means will suffice to tackle situations one would have thought unimaginable.