"The Crown Agent" by Stephen O'Rouke is a beautifully crafted novel. It quickly draws the reader back in time to surround you with all the sights and sounds of early 19th Century Scotland. The contrasts drawn between the Edinburgh and Glasgow of the time give a real sense of how each city was adapting to the changing industrial landscape, seemingly in isolation of the other. So removed was the capital seen to be from the rapidly advancing second city, that even the well educated and well informed of Edinburgh viewed it as something of a foreign land. Against this background we meet Dr Mungo Lyon, son of a senior officer in the East India Company and a surgeon of Edinburgh caught up in the Burke and Hare scandal. About to embark upon a mission that will lead him into grave danger, Mungo seems ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead.
O'Rourke's characterisation is excellent and the novel moves apace to retain the interest of the reader. We meet the Lord Advocate and Sir John, Collector of His Majesty's Customs at Leith, who present Mungo with a mission. They want him to investigate the fate of the Julietta, a trading ship, whose crew are all found dead on board in the Firth of Clyde and to see if it is linked to the disappearance of a customs officer and the death of a local lighthouse keeper. We follow Mungo as he crosses the country from east to west en route to Greenock and the customs office there. He quickly finds that his mission is of interest to more than just the select few he believes to know about it, and he ends up in a chase across central Scotland that pits his quick wittedness against a group of renegades led by a sinister looking man with a pock marked face and a fine aim with a pistol. Though he gives the men the slip he loses his gun and though he makes it to Greenock, rather than feeling reassured that he has any ally in his contact there, Commander Birkmyre, he feels far from it. He is at the same time both mystified and concerned by the appearance of a symbol - a heraldic double eagle - which seems to be recurring in places he visits that are associated with his mission. He feels that if he can somehow make a link between them, all will become clear.
Mungo masquerades as a marine scientist and receives a welcome into the home of Sir Guy Stewart and his wife, Lady Octavia. While he feels they might have much to tell him about local land ownership, he feels there are also answers to be found among the local townsfolk and in visiting the port at Campbeltown. He makes a nightime foray into Greenock, only to find the body snatcher Hare has broken into his room on his return. The pair join together to pursue the dangerous forces that seem to want to thwart Mungo's mission.
"The Crown Agent" is written with a great eye to detail and its pace, storyline and ending all reward the reader. There is definite mileage in Mungo Lyon returning for future missions, though "The Crown Agent" stands as an excellent novel in its own right.