Book Review: A Spy in the House (Y. S. Lee)

A Spy in the HouseTitle: A Spy in the House
Series: The Agency #1
Author: Y. S. Lee
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication year: 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction; Victorian-era
Rating: 4/5

Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, Mary Quinn is rescued from the gallows and taken to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, Mary acquires a singular education, fine manners, and a surprising opportunity. The school is the cover for the Agency – a top secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks. She must work in the guise of a lady’s companion to infiltrate a rich merchant’s home with hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the Thorold household is full of dangerous secrets, and people are not what they seem – least of all Mary.
(from the blurb – because it’s a well-written one and I’m too tired to think)

I remember reading A Spy in the House for the first time about two and a half years ago and being slightly thwarted by terms like “drawing-room”, “lady’s maid”, “skivvy”, “footmen”, “Lascar”, etc. Thanks to my education in British upper-class society through Downton Abbey, I was able to put the story into a richer context the second time around.
The year is 1858, and the author has actually Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture, so her description of the Victorian society Mary lives in is not only vivid but also accurate – I suppose. The setting is London, and the Great Stink of Thames makes it not the most romantic stage – and it’s not meant to.

The story is not just one of detective story. I rather found the underlining sub-plots more interesting: gender roles, women’s positions in the society (even James Easton undermines Mary’s ability every now and then although he has seen firsthand what she can do), the gap between the employers and employees, the trade with India, Chinamen and the discriminations they have to face. These finer points are emphasized and brought to life through Miss Thorold’s restlessness with her life without even consciously realizing it, through men’s comments on women and “what they are supposed to do” (shop and admire wedding dresses, if you are a middle class girl, apparently), through the life of the scullery maid, Cass, through Mary’s conversation with Mr. Chen (that had a personal touch to it – at least to me), and more.

The investigation itself is rather slow-going, but it is fueled by the assistance of one James Easton, a character you will soon meet – about 50 pages into the novel. As I have mentioned before, James did frustrate me sometimes with his careless remarks but I did enjoy his and Mary’s easy banter. James Easton is a character that is easy to like although he can be pig-headed, because he does not dismiss the notion that women can be as intelligent and sharp as men. The difference between him and the “normal” behavior of a Victorian gentleman is shown in the scene where he, his brother, Miss Thorold and Mary discuss the Crimean War. Miss Thorold plays the “typical” (I assume) role of a clueless Victorian middle-class girl while George Easton is indignant at Mary having an actual opinion on such matters as wars. James is not fazed though, and continues to debate the matter with Mary, each provoking the other.

The language the author employs is a little hesitant and simple at first, even a bit repetitive. It gets better as the story progresses, creating a mix of Victorian terms and expressions and modern language to help the readers’ understanding.

All in all, the book started out as a 3.5 and progressed into a solid 4, and if you like historical fiction and/or interested in the Victorian era and women’s positions and the opportunities they had (or the lack thereof), A Spy in the House is for you.
To the readers who have already read this book: I’m happy to inform you that the few loose ends in the book are wrapped up in the upcoming final book of the series, Rivals in the City.

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