The third book in Eleanor Updale's series has gentleman-thief Montmerency facing his greatest challenge yet: espionage on an international scale. Set twenty years after his fall through a skylight during a botched robbery and his subsequent years recuperating in jail before taking to the sewers as his criminal alter-ego Scarper, Montmerency now looks forward to the onset of the twentieth century with his close-knit group of friends. With wealth, security and rewarding jobs as part of the British Empire's spy network, Montmerency and his dear friend George Selwyn-Fox are happy to take on a considerably less serious commission.
A collection of rare specimens have been stolen from a reclusive naturalist, and the trial leads the two men to Italy where George's brother and two sons are holidaying. Montmerency quickly takes the younger son Frank under his wing, and just when the mystery of the missing artifacts seems to have been resolved, larger problems emerge. Whilst Montmerency is distracted by the belief that there's more to the initial burglary than meets the eye, Frank gets caught up in the plots of Italian anarchists and a riot that ends the death of a policeman.
At first the family tries to protect Frank, only to realize that he's in the perfect position to act as an informant and uncover more dangerous plots against the government. Joined by their old friends Vi and Tom (a former prostitute and her son), Montmerency and George take Frank to London and then America in the hopes of integrating themselves into the anarchist movement.
Set over the course of two years and stretching from Britain to Italy, Scotland to America, the novel also delves into some romantic entanglements, Doctor Farcett's experiments with the new x-ray machine, and the question of Tom's paternity. As Updale's thickest book yet, she quietly ratchets up the tension in the espionage plot whilst detailing domestic affairs, world-building and an array of historical characters that flit in and out of the story, including activist Gaetano Bresci, composer Puccini, and inventor Thomas Edison. Updale doesn't skimp on the details, and many readers may be frustrated at the slow pacing, but her steady control over the plot and her concise writing style only enhance the suspense that intensifies over the course of the story.
She also continues her trend of setting up thought-provoking and morally problematic scenarios for the reader, without letting her own views intrude on the readers' ability to form their own conclusions. In this case she's very careful to present *both* sides of the argument that exists between the anarchists and the aristocrats, and Frank in particular finds himself caught between the allure of the underground movement and his loyalty to family and country. On the one side is his concern over the innocent lives at stake, on the other is his camaraderie with the people he's befriended and who he is secretly betraying. It's a fascinating moral conundrum with no clear right or wrong answer. Like his foster-uncle once did, Frank has to call upon his own Scarper to survive the situation he's embroiled in.
As mentioned, Updale's language is beautifully clear and descriptive, and her research into the time period and locations is meticulous. It's very reminiscent of the likes of Philip Pullman and Leon Garfield what with her gift of bringing the past (specifically Victorian England) to life in a way that few authors manage. Best described as a tightly-plotted spy-thriller, "Montmerency and the Assassins" ends on an abruptly grim and shocking note. Although it may bring a few tears to your eyes, it certainly leaves no question that there is a forth installment on its way.