Special Agent Mauve, Mission: Naughty Horace, by J.B. Trepagnier - 3 Stars

Mauve is an agent, colourful of course, although her looks aren’t the focus, who is supposed to run around like her body’s on fire and her mind’s in the fridge but her world is so gosh darn physical that you could assume realistically that she’s got a physique mostly knitted together out of bruises. Scratches too, as in this story her nemesis is an evil cat. Puuurfect. Sorry, that pun was fit only for the piranha tank but my excuse is I have a cold and my virus-addled mind has me believing that puns are somehow funny. I’ll try to delete them all at the end by might miss a few. Reading about exercise can feel exhausting, especially for those of us who get a stitch when we run a tap. Anyway, the big question: How does Dr Evil’s glamourous cat socialise with other cats? They probably have some extravagant and nefarious process. Maybe every now and again they’re flown in under the radar from Panama with a consignment of dope hidden up their

The character of Agent Mauve is quite intriguing as, unlike every other agent in fictional history, she’s learning on the job because all the long term professional agents have been doxxed (identified and outed) by a group of dissident hackers. New agents have had to be recruited in a hurry, which is why they got Mauve – non standard material – the most interesting focus for a writer. In fact, she’s so non-standard that reading this would make you feel that anyone could muddle along and do it. As Terry Pratchett said, “If all the elves can sing, I’d want to write about the tone deaf one.” Mauve isn’t tone deaf, as far as I know, but she definitely is vulnerable to food poisoning and cat allergens, so that occasionally affects the client experience.

The main quality needed to be a secret undercover agent, according to all the usual authors, appears to be nerves of steel. Number two, in the Mauve series, is training masochism and third is the ability to learn everything quickly, whether that’s a martial art or a language, juggling knives or messing with computers. How to manage and misdirect people is more about common initiative, although codename Mauve does have to debase herself every now and then and that’s the source of some excruciating sympathy humour.

Mauve’s job is similar to training for a sport but that sport would have to be strange one which has laws that no one sticks to and rules that see you coming and bend out of reach, where you aren’t sure who’s your opponent and not everything is what you were expecting. Some marks shown here are clever and some are fools but the agent, flirting and acting with a license to do the wrongs that make a right, has to interact with all of them and thus the show rolls on.

There’s a structural split in the real spooks’ world, a division between the inward circle of responsibility (in America: FBI teams) and the externally facing spies (CIA) and then there’s the “everyone knows” data gatherers (Google) that people accept intrusion from, on balance. I would guess most external spying is now done without the spies ever meeting their targets, e.g. in a time of national crisis, if the US government asked Amazon for access to everything on their international for-hire cloud servers, what do you think would happen? In this division between the domestic and the foreign, Mauve’s agency is to date a purely within-nation outfit. The supra-national might be more fun but I think Mauve would need a secondment to get into that.

As mentioned before, Mauve shows initiative and is a good student, learning languages from what you’d think are the obvious sources and yet no one ever seems to go to. As members of the public, our activities are much less daring but it’s good to be briefed on the things you need to know in your own daily routine, such as denture cleaning solution being the best way to remove wine stains from the inside of your decanters (top tip in Winchester). In Mauve’s case, what she needs to learn is the best way to become indispensable to a criminal cat fancier with a deviant foot fetish. Rather her than me.

Horace is a cat with a cattitude problem (sorry again, awful), that any ruthless government employee would soon have dangling out of the window if it tried to spoil a sting. In this tale Horace’s role is to put the imp into Mission Impossible and insert the unpredictable element you can’t train for and a real field operative would be expected to overcome. Mauve is often seen being tested and at this rate will soon be hot-housed out of her “baby agent” status with rapidity. In the Mafiosi you apparently have to kill someone to be “made” and accepted (or be a selective accountant) but it looks like in a cell of this modern security service the key is to judge how familiar you want to get with your own sense of revulsion.

After a thumpingly good but very brief initial character introduction story and now a full book at a slightly slower pace, Mauve’s team are slipping into the roles quite like an orphan’s new family, learning to rely on each other’s skills and overlooking each other’s unauthorised behaviour. There is a sense of the fraternity house to some of the things they do though, as if their mental age hasn’t caught up with their responsibilities yet. Then again, I can see the cast are radical misfits and bright enough to decline conformism because that makes for a better book. Throw people with different skills together and watch them become a family who can beat any challenge seems to be the plan, with the protagonist as an early-career, humanly flawed superstar in the making. This series is a vehicle for a single character so far, Agent Mauve, with all the positive characters circling around to support and get her there like the monkey and pig gods helping the quest of a monk in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. The black hats all embody tests, obstacles on her road to greatness. This is no different from the majority of heroic adventure characters in fiction, with the possible exception of Marvin the Martian, who did it all himself.

This is a rollicking adventure (the precise definition of rollicking appears to be: you can insert oars in it) but it would have benefitted from a bit more dazzle and perhaps some extra insights into secondary characters’ lives. The Chinese Restaurant family could use more development as her contact there seems to be a very useful source of wisdom and that’s possibly a factor that Mauve needs to tap into. She doesn’t need to be a spiritual character to do this job but all previous fate-picked accidental questers pick up a little ancient thought along their weary road and it’s just the sort of unorthodox learning that helps make them special over the long term.

When Mauve wants to encourage the spooky world to interview her boyfriend and bring him on missions, the credibility lessens a little but it does add to a sense of personal worry that the story probably needed. Who makes you smile, or is no one up to the job? If that thought spooks you as much as it worries me, many of us are still fumbling in the dark while Mauve is already there, solving the case.

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