Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Lee, Y.S.  The Agency: A Spy in the House. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2010. ISBN: 987-0-7636-4067-5. 335 pages.  $16.99. Young Adult. 

The Agency: A Spy in the House is the first novel in Y.S. Lee’s Mary Quinn Mystery series for young adults. Set in Victorian London, the story introduces us to seventeen year-old Mary Quinn, the orphaned daughter of a Chinese sailor and an Irish seamstress.  It follows Mary on her first assignment for the Agency, a “collective” of secret agents working out of Miss Skrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. 

As the story opens, a twelve year-old Mary finds herself before a magistrate, convicted of theft and sentenced to death. Rescued from the gallows, she accepts a position at Miss Skrimshaw’ Academy. Though Mary learns how to navigate London’s polite society, but restless nature desires more. When she admits this to her instructors Miss Treleaven and Mrs. Frame, they proudly offer Mary a position with the Agency. Of course, she accepts, and after an expedited training period, is placed in the Thorold residence. Posing as a hired companion to the family’s haughty daughter, Mary gathers information about possible nefarious dealings in Mr. Thorold’s shipping business. 

This assignment takes a turn as she is almost caught searching Mr. Thorold’s home office. When she ducks into a closet, she discovers that she isn’t the only one investigating Mr. Thorold! Mary eventually teams up with the handsome young stranger from the closet, James Easton. The two follow a trail that leads them to a refuge for Chinese sailors. While searching the refuge, Mary is discovered by a caretaker who recognizes her, remembers her father, and provides her the opportunity to learn about her father-- and herself. As the plot thickens, Mary and James find themselves rushing to solve a mystery fueled by greed, piracy, and murder.  

Lee, a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture, has modernized the period detective novel by raising  issues of diversity, gender roles, and classism. Writing in third person, Lee alternates between Mary’s and James’ perspectives. This is Mary’s story though, so James’ voice sometimes seems an afterthought. The story includes some romantic tension, but not so much that it overshadows the rest of the plot. Overall A Spy in the House is an enjoyable read.

Heather Tylock

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