Book Review – A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
Series: The Agency, Book #1
I was drawn to A Spy in the House (The Agency, #1) by the blurb, it sounded so charming: thief rehabilitated and trained into a private detective during Victorian London.
At a young age, Mary is rescued from the gallows by a woman masquerading as a prison warden. She is taken to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The school, Mary learns, is a front for a private investigation agency and, at 17, she is taken on as an agent. In her new role she is catapulted into the family home of the Thorolds to investigate the shady business dealings of Mr Thorold
This was an agreeable young adult read set in Victorian London with a smart and charming detective as the lead tasked with identifying a mystery which touched on the British Empire’s trade . The mystery was complimented by other themes pertinent to the time: family, race, class, gender constraints, etc
As much as I like reading historical fiction, I’m glad that attitudes have changed since then as the conditions were awful for anyone apart from white wealthy men. If you were a person of colour, woman or child, your life was not your own, you were powerless against the whims of your betters (social superiors).
It is always a harsh reminder to read about the lack of a social welfare system where women had to turn to prostitution to survive, widows to begging and orphans to stealing. It was acceptable that children as young as 10 years old were part of the official work force and 12 year olds were tried as an adult in the criminal justice system.
And as much as I complain about the state of the 21st century, there is much to appreciate now, notably the social safeguards. Then, you were valueless if poor, stigmatised if you were foreign and subjugated if in servitude. Mary Quinn was in an unique position for the time, educated and free to make choices in her life. Which was completely the opposite for other females in this book, who were dependent on the good graces or manipulation of the menfolk in their lives.
The relationship between men and women were nicely revealed through the couples and interactions between the sexes in the book. The give and take, social norms of what could and couldn’t be done. Protocol that had to be followed.
There were archetypal characters for the period: Hard done by servants, ditzy debutantes and confident menfolk. Whilst coupled with the unexpected: clever females running a private investigative firm. I liked all the characters, of which most were stereotypical, but nevertheless served a purposed and were used well within the story.
It was good to see some minor surprises on the way to keep you detecting along with Mary and James. I’m not sure how realistic the novel was in its portrayals of the options afforded people of the time but at the end of the day it is a novel not a history reference book.
I enjoyed it, especially Mary the plucky female who made the best of the hand she was dealt, took the opportunity which was presented her way and ran with it.
3 stars – liked It