A Spy in the House (The Agency #1)
by Y.S. Lee
From Goodreads: Introducing an exciting new series! Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this diverting mystery trails a feisty heroine as she takes on a precarious secret assignment.
Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.
I first heard about this series from a guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. “Young women trained as spies in an elite school for girls in the Victorian era,” was her tagline for the Mary Quinn series, and she went on to talk about how much she was enjoying the series, so I added it to my Goodreads TBR series and finally downloaded a copy from the library last week.
The book opens as Mary, a world-weary girl of twelve, is convicted of theft and sentenced to the gallows for her crimes (this is the Victorian era, after all, and the criminal justice system is unforgiving). A mysterious woman whisks her away from the prison and before she knows it, Mary is the newest student at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. It is a school for girls who do not wish to follow the few and narrow paths allotted to women of the time. Some become nurses or teachers, while a select few are chosen to join The Agency, a group of spies and investigators who use the stereotype of the air-headed, silly, ignorant woman to their advantage as they search for criminals in and around London.
Mary’s first assignment is as a Lady’s Companion to a spoiled young woman, Angelica, in a household where she is meant to build evidence in a case against a shipping magnate whose ships keep sinking, resulting is large insurance payoffs. Because of her own nature, Mary can’t simply sit still and listen. She goes off to investigate the case more deeply than she should and gets herself to more trouble than she bargains for. Along the way, Mary must face the secrets of her own past and deal with her own biases about women in the upper classes.
I found A Spy in the House to be great fun and a quick read. Lee has created an interesting lead character in Mary Lang (or, Mary Quinn, as she prefers to be known) who has a lot of native ability, but has a lot of room to grow both as a person and as an investigator. This isn’t surprising, given Mary’s age, but in less capable hands Mary Quinn would end up as an infallible Mary Sue figure who would quickly get boring.
Lee’s writing is workaday- efficient and effective, but not particularly eloquent- but her handling of pace is excellent. The plot trips right along, with action that rises and falls enough that it neither bores the reader nor makes one feel like they have to stop and catch their breath. Subtle red herrings make it seem like anyone could be the culprit, but there are enough clues that an astute reader could tease out whodunnit before their identity is revealed.
I finished this book in three sittings, and was surprised to find out that it was a 300+ page book. It didn’t feel like it was that long, and to me that’s a good thing. If a story is good, it’s never long enough. I would recommend A Spy in the House to anyone who likes a good mystery, or is interested in the Victorian Era.