CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 9. . . .October 29, 2010
A Spy in the House. (The Agency).
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press (Distributed in Canada by Random House Canada), 2009.
335 pp., hardcover, $20.00.
Mystery and detective stories.
Sex role - Fiction.
Orphans - Fiction.
London (England) - History - 19th century -Fiction
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17
Review by Lindsay Schluter.
Felicity turned her marvellous eyes on Mary, her gaze almost hypnotic now. “Here, we turn the stereotype of the meek female servant to our advantage. Because women are believed to be foolish, silly, and week, we are in a position to observe and learn more effectively than a man in a similar position. Our clients employ us to gather information, often on highly confidential subjects. We place our agents in very sensitive situations. But while a man in such a position might be subject to suspicion, we find that women -- posing as governesses or domestic servants, for example -- are often totally ignored.
Twelve-year-old Mary Quinn, a thief and a pickpocket, has been sentenced to death by hanging when she is unexpectedly rescued and given the opportunity to improve her life by attending Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. Five years later, Mary is offered a role with the Agency, the secret female spy corps hidden within the school. Excited by the opportunity to make her own way in the world, she immediately accepts the offer.
Mary’s first assignment is to work as a lady's companion to Angelica Thorold, a girl whose father is suspected of smuggling precious jewels and sculptures. Mary is to observe and listen for news of a shipment coming from the Coast; however, she quickly grows tired of simply “tea drinking” and begins to search for clues. With her quick wit and adventurous spirit, Mary takes every advantage she can -- even going so far as to break into Mr. Thorold’s warehouse in the middle of the night, dressed as a boy.
In the midst of investigating the mystery and uncovering dangerous secrets, Mary quickly discovers that she isn’t the only one on the case. A young man named James Easton is also investigating Thorold, and while she finds herself attracted to Easton, Mary is determined to keep her mind on the investigation. The two strike an uneasy alliance, and Mary is sure to keep her cards close at hand.
With many twists and turns along the way, Mary proves herself worthy of secret agent status. Y.S. Lee has done a fabulous job of creating an incredibly delightful young heroine whose strong will and independent spirit are reminiscent of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. And who would Elizabeth Bennet be without Mr. Darcy? From the very moment Mary runs into James Easton at the back of a wardrobe, the flirtatious interplay and witty banter simply jump off the page. There is a chemistry between the two that cannot be ignored, and Lee provides readers with just enough romance to satisfy that sweet-tooth.
Set in Victorian London, every detail of the novel is nuanced with elements of the era, from the hansom cabs flying through London’s grungy streets, to the stench of the River Thames hovering in the air. With a PhD in Victorian Literature & Culture, Lee is a great authority on the subject, and her expertise shows.
The mystery, itself, is somewhat complex, with a number of Red Herrings thrown into the mix. Mary does a fair amount of investigating; however, there is a noticeable lack of clues uncovered along the way. As a result, readers may find it difficult to piece together the mystery themselves. The culprit of the crime comes as a surprise, and the motive behind the mystery is revealed in a somewhat cliche villain-tells-all monologue.
Overall, Y.S. Lee’s debut mystery novel is a compelling tale packed with suspense, action and intrigue. A Spy in the House is the first of a three-part series that will undoubtedly achieve great success. The second novel in the series, A Body at the Tower, was released in August of 2010.
Lindsay Schluter is a Youth Services Librarian for Programs & Services at Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.
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