Review of “A Spy in the House” by Y.S. Lee

As the first book in this series begins, it is the summer of 1858, the place London, and the setting Victorian England. Historically, this was the time of “the Great Stink,” when the hot weather made the smell of untreated human sewage and industrial waste unbearable in London. The smell, and fears of its possible effects, serves as a backdrop for this novel, whose author has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture.

We meet Mary Quinn, now 17. When she was 12 and about to be hanged for housebreaking, she was rescued at the last minute by someone from Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, where Mary was taken for safety, education, and a future career. Anne Treleaven, the head teacher, told Mary she was chosen because she was clever, fierce, and ambitious. Anne explained: “We can help you to escape your life as a thief – to reinvent yourself, if you like. A change to improve your expectations . . . to become what you might have been had fate been kinder in the first instance.” And indeed, that is what happens.

By 1858, Mary was an assistant teacher at the school, and more refined and accomplished than she had ever hoped of being. But she felt bored and stifled. Although feeling ungrateful and guilty about it, she mentioned this to Anne and her partner running the school, Felicity Frame. The women told Mary that “as it happens, we have a post in mind that we think will suit your abilities very well.” They invited Mary to be part of The Agency, a secret spy ring used by the police as well as private clients. They explained that they used the stereotype of the meek female servant to their advantage:

“Because women are believed to be foolish, silly, and weak, 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.”

Mary eagerly accepted the opportunity, and got her first assignment. She was to serve as a companion to 18-year-old Angelica Thorold, and in the process, spy on Angelica’s father, who was suspected of smuggling valuable artifacts from India.

Mary decided to take a proactive role in the job, and began snooping around whenever she could. In this, she found to her horror she was joined by a handsome young man, James Easton, 19, a civil engineer working with his brother George. George was besotted with Angelica and hoped to marry her. James had heard unsavory rumors concerning Thorold’s business, and wanted to find out the truth before George got too involved with the family. Mary and James, each having discovered the other up to the same surreptitious shenanigans, reluctantly agreed to collaborate. Needless to say, they infuriated one another in spite of their undeniable attraction. And of course, they both come under mortal danger.

The denouement reveals not only what the Thorolds were up to, but secrets about Mary as well.

Evaluation: Readers will certainly want to get the next books in this series. It’s so fun to find a set of charming books you can continue right away, “bingeing” as it were, without having to wait so long for the next book to come along that you forget why you wanted to continue in the first place.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2009

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