'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 21 September 2013

Review: A Spy in the House (The Agency #1)

What would you do if you were faced with death and then given an alternative? In 1850s Victorian London, 12-year-old Mary is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to death. But just after she is lead from the courtroom, something happens.

“My colleagues have been watching you for some time. You know one of them as the wardress at the Old Bailey, of course; another observed you in Newgate prison during the weeks before your sentencing. They were both struck by your intelligence. They were also intrigued by the fact that you pled guilty instead of insisting upon a trial. Most people charged with capital crimes insist upon their innocence, whether they are truly innocent or not. But you didn’t. Why not, Mary?”

Mary is given a chance to change her destiny, and then five years after she enters Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, is made yet another curious offer. It’s not giving too much away to say this, because the clue is right there in the book’s title. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is just that, but it’s also the front for a top-secret private investigation agency. So, at seventeen, Mary embarks on an unusual career for most people, let alone a woman of her time.

In the midst of the “Big Stink” - the dreadful smells emanating from refuse in the River Thames in the heat of summer - Mary goes undercover as a lady’s companion, in the hope of finding a clue to help discover what has happened to missing ships and their cargo. As she digs deeper, she is forced to face a secret from her own past. It’s something that no one has guessed, and which she’s tried to forget.

Author Y. S. Lee is a Singapore-born Canadian, with a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, who has lived in London. She has vividly recreated a London populated by feisty characters. There are twists and turns in the story which I didn’t expect. I both feared and cheered for Mary as she strayed deep into a dangerous web of mystery, history, and concealed identities.

A Spy in the House is the first in The Agency series featuring Mary Quinn, and was first published in 2009. Books two and three (The Body at the Tower and The Traitor in the Tunnel) have already been published, and I am eagerly anticipating book four (Rivals in the City), which is expected sometime in the near future.

Title: A Spy in the House (The Agency #1)
Author: Y. S. Lee
Publisher: Walker Books, $16.95 RRP
Publication Date: 1 June 2009
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781406315165
For ages: 12+
Type: Young Adult