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Muse's Books

Book 73: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

UK cover
Book 73: A Spy in the House (The Agency #1).
Author: Y. S. Lee, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Victorian England. Mystery. YA.
Other Details: Paperback. 341 pages.

Orphan Mary Quinn lives on the edge. Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, she’s rescued from the gallows by a woman posing as a prison warden. In her new home, Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary acquires a singular education, fine manners, and surprising opportunity. The school is a cover for the Agency – an elite, top-secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks.

With London all but paralyzed by a noxious heat wave, Mary must work fast in the guise of 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.
- synopsis from author's website.

While I certainly enjoyed this lively historical mystery, I was struck by a glaring anachronism on its opening pages, which continued to bother me every time the issue was mentioned in the text. The novel opens in 1853 with Mary being sentenced. Having studied Victorian social history, I immediately questioned the premise that 12-year old Mary would be sentenced to hang for house-breaking. I know there was plenty of social injustice during the Victorian period but I was fairly confident that by the mid-1800s there had been significant reforms in the English legal system. It didn't take long to confirm that indeed arson, burglary and theft from a dwelling house had been removed from the list of capital crimes in 1837.

Of course, Mary being sentenced to hang is much more dramatic than imprisonment or transportation yet it is historically inaccurate. It probably is something that would not bother many readers but it did me. I do tend to find these timey-whimey slippages in historical fiction distracting, especially when not acknowledged by the author. It undermined my confidence in her research despite the fact she holds a PhD in Victorian literature and culture.

In addition, I felt that often the language and sensibilities were too modern. Still Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series and Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle Trilogy were both prone to this tendency. I was still able to enjoy those novels and the same was true here. Overall, I felt the author's heart was in the right place and also appreciated that she was seeking to highlight the limited opportunities available to women during the period even if she over-simplified the issue.

US cover
In terms of the cover art, while the UK publishers stuck to objects it is commendable that Lee's US publisher's resisted the trend for 'whitewashing' cover art and used a model that reflected Mary's mixed race (her mother was Irish and father a Chinese seaman). A few reviewers on Goodreads were disappointed that the novel didn't explore much of Mary's heritage. However, this made sense in the context of the times and Mary's desire to conceal her background and pass as Irish. I felt that Lee was not trying to gloss over the racism prevalent in Victorian society. Of course, there was also strong anti-Irish prejudice during the period. There was some foreshadowing that Mary will be exploring more of her Asian heritage in the later books.

I certainly plan on reading more of this series as despite my timey-whimey quibbles it was a fun romp and Mary proved a lively and appealing heroine.

Y.S. Lee page on 'A Spy in the House' - includes link to excerpt.
Tags: historical mysteries, young adult

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