Review of “The Body at the Tower” by Y.S. Lee

The second novel in “The Agency” series set in Victorian England begins 14 months after the previous book. It is 1859 and Mary Quinn, soon 18, is now a fully-trained member of The Agency, a secret spy ring used by the police as well as private clients. The Agency takes advantage of the stereotype of the meek female servant to their advantage. As the head of the Agency explained in the first book:

“Because women are believed to be foolish, silly, and weak, we are in a position to observe and learn more effectively than a main 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.”

In this installment, Mary is asked to disguise herself as a twelve-year-old boy and go to work as a builder’s assistant on the construction site of the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster, now in its 25th year of work.

[The new buildings were as being erected on the site of a medieval building-complex owned by the Crown and traditionally housing the Parliament that was largely destroyed by fire in 1834. Re-construction (which eventually took 30 years) suffered great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects.]

Mary, cutting off her hair and posing as “Mark,” was sent to the site following the death of a carpenter, John Wick, who fell from the 300-foot-high belfry of St. Stephen’s Tower. The Agency was tasked with monitoring any gossip or talk about the death of Mr. Wick, and to see if any information could be gleaned about both the high rate of accidents at the building site and why the construction was so grossly behind schedule.

Mark had traumatic experiences at the Westminster site from the start, but perhaps nothing compared to her shock at seeing James Easton arrive to do his own investigation. James, now 20 and a civil engineer, had been in India working on railroad construction. Or at least that was what he was meant to do before contracting a bad case of malaria, coming close to death. He was now back in London, and currently without work. Thus Philip Harkness, the site engineer and an old friend of James’ father, asked James if he would provide an “independent” engineer’s report as to the safety conditions on the site, as requisitioned by the First Commissioner of Works. James was concerned he couldn’t be truly “independent” given his connection to Harkness, and insisted he would do so only if appointed by the Commissioner himself and not Harkness. This was promptly accomplished.

James immediately recognized Mary in disguise, and again when he came to see the widowed Mrs. Wick just as Mary was visiting as “Mrs. Anthony Fordham.” Mary came up with a story for James that she was researching a book about the life of the working poor in London, a subject about which she truly held an interest, having been one of them herself.

They collaborated once again, as they did in the first book, to get to the root of the murder and the problems on site, and once again, their feelings for each other were simmering just below the surface (and sometimes above it). But this time, Mary felt she owed James at least some of the truth about herself, risking everything to tell him.

Evaluation: I wasn’t quite so enchanted with this book as the first; for one thing, I couldn’t buy that Mary, an 18-year-old young woman, could so successfully pass as a 12-year-old boy. But the history integrated into the story is interesting, the interaction between James and Mary is delightful, and the intrigue will keep readers turning the pages. I definitely will continue with the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2010


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