A Spy in the House--Y.S. Lee
March 2010 by Candlewick
Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.
This is an out and out good mystery. I haven't read a pure mystery novel (as in, not just a mystery weaved into a larger plot a la Harry Potter) in a while. It feels a bit dues ex-ish a couple of times when a clue just falls into Mary's hands, but that is part of the genre. The mystery is well paced. The reader gets enough information to put things together without figuring everything out way before the characters. But, one of the biggest rules in mysteries is to never show a gun unless you plan on that gun going off later in the novel. So why did Yee make such a big deal about the river and then never do anything with it? This was just a minor qualm; it did not seriously detract from my enjoyment of the book.
I like the narration from two points of view. That's hard to carry off in a novel, especially a mystery novel, but Lee does it well.
The novel spends a great deal of time on the societal position of women in the Victorian era. This occasionally makes the book feel too feminist, to the point of being anti-men. Now, I'm all for strong female leads who can take care of themselves, but we don't need to take cheap shots at the entire male gender either. So often when women are encouraged to explore options and do something in their life that they find fulfilling (a good thing to encourage), marriage gets immediately dismissed as something that a woman shouldn't aspire to, which bugs me. This aspect of the book just didn't jive with my personal philosophy, but aside from that Yee gives us a good look of the very very very limited options of Victorian women. Upper class: marriage or spinsterhood. Lower class: marriage and work, either on a farm or in a factory. Prostitution: open to women from all classes. With no choices whatsoever, many women were unhappy or dissatisfied.
What it really necessary for Mary to find a book of porn while snooping? What was the point? It adds nothing to the plot except perhaps to emphasize the relative societal positions of men and women. But I felt it was unnecessary. It's brief and not graphic, to those of you worried about content, but not at all needed.
Neither spunky nor feisty is the right word word to describe Mary. She's forceful, quick thinking, to the point, and most definitely not demure. She is enjoyable at times and rubs me the wrong way at others; in the end I liked her. Was her mixed heritage supposed to be a surprise? You can't introduce your main character as "Mary Lang" and not expect your readers to put it together that she's part Chinese or at least part Asian. And honestly, the Irish and the Chinese do not look alike. Lame cover story.
Yee has a few show don't tell issues. We are simply told Mary's character in a list of eight or nine traits rather than putting her character together through her actions. And we don't see anything of the month Mary spends training to be a secret agent. However, in this case Lee likely wanted to speed us along to the main adventure without getting distracted on side plot, but I wanted to see some spy training.
It's the kind of series I would have really gotten into as a kid, but now it's less appealing. I liked the novel and it was hard to put down, but I didn't connect with the characters. Good, but not fantastic.