From the back cover:
Mary Quinn leads a remarkable life. At twelve, an orphan and convicted thief, she was miraculously rescued from the gallows. Now, at seventeen, she has a new and astonishing chance to work undercover for the Agency.
It is May 1858, and a foul-smelling heat wave paralyzed London. Mary enters a rich merchant’s household to solve the mystery of his lost cargo ships. But as she soon learns, the house is full of deceptions, and people are not what they seem—including Mary herself.
As a convicted thief, twelve-year-old Mary Lang is about to be executed when she is saved by the ladies of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she receives an education and by the age of seventeen is teaching other students the skills they will need to be independent. Trouble is, she’s not satisfied and the few other career options open to her gender don’t interest her much, either. When she mentions this to the two women running the school, they suggest another alternative: the Agency.
The Agency is a covert organization of female spies, operating under the assumption that because women are presumed to be flighty and empty-headed, their agents will be able to retrieve information more easily than a man might, particularly in situations of domestic servitude. Mary quickly agrees, despite the threat of danger, and soon finds herself serving as paid companion to spoiled Miss Angelica Thorold, whose merchant father is suspected of dealing in stolen Hindu goods.
Mary (now using the surname Quinn) isn’t the lead on the investigation and isn’t supposed to actually do much of anything, but she gets antsy, and in the process of snooping meets James Easton. James’s older brother desperately wants to marry Angelica, but James has heard rumors about her father’s business practices, and so is doing some sleuthing of his own to determine whether a family connection would be unwise. He and Mary form a partnership and spend most of the book poking about in warehouses and rest homes for aging Asian sailors and following people on foot or in carriages while maintaining a flirty sort of bickering banter.
Author Y. S. Lee tries to make the mystery interesting, giving us a bit of intrigue between Angelica and her father’s secretary as a distraction, but ultimately it feels very insubstantial to me. Nothing much comes as a surprise and two story elements that could’ve been highlights—Mary’s month-long intensive training and Scotland Yard’s raid on the Thorold house—occur off camera! Too, Mary is harboring a secret about her parentage which is thoroughly obvious: she’s part Asian. Only towards the end did Lee actually make clear that Mary is keeping this a secret from others because of the foreigner bias of the time, and I must wonder whether the intended young adult audience was reading this going, “What’s the big deal?”
Not that it isn’t nifty to have a part-Asian heroine, of course. Mary is competent and level-headed, though I admit I did get irritated by how often she is favorably compared to “ordinary women,” who would scream or faint in situations in which Mary is able to keep her head. When a mystery stars a male sleuth, do we need to hear over and over how much smarter he is than the ordinary fellow? I don’t think so. On the flip side, the overall theme of the book seems to be “don’t understimate women,” and Mary finds time to inspire a scullery maid to seek out Miss Scrimshaw’s and to convince Angelica to pursue a musical career.
In the end, A Spy in the House is a decent read. It’s not perfect, but I still plan to read the second book in the series in the near future.
Additional reviews of A Spy in the House can be found at Triple Take.