A Spy in the House is written by Y. S. Lee. It was published in 2009 by Candlewick Press.
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 a 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.
A Spy in the House is really heavy-handed at the beginning, almost choking you with the amount of “Women don’t have to get married! They can be successful like the men! We can do things too!” and infodumping that’s present in the first two chapters. However, after those first two chapters, Lee weaves that sort of thing more intricately with the story, so it’s not nearly as noticeable and “let me hit you in the face with a brick” level of subtlety as it is in the beginning. Angelica rebels against marriage and one of the villains is a female, but other than that Lee tones down the Girl Power for most of the rest of the book.
(There’s not anything wrong with Girl Power, by the way. It’s just so heavy-handed in the book (and delivered in a very mechanical, expositional way) that it reads more like a pamphlet than a novel, at the beginning.)
The novel takes place in the 1850s, where apparently a ton of Regency mannerisms sort of died away, because men and women called each other by their first names and didn’t worry about not being introduced. For the first part of the book, I kept thinking, “They weren’t introduced! Scandal! She called him Michael! Scandal!” I guess I’ve read too many Regency novels lately…
The mystery is nice, but I thought the best reveal was the one about Mary. I’m also eagerly looking forward to seeing where the relationship between Mary and James goes, especially since Lee has hammered the “women don’t have to get married” theme so much already that I can’t actually see them getting together. But we shall see, I suppose.
Is the cigar box lost forever? Will Mary ever find out what her father left for her? I see you, continuous plot arc!
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Murder, a small amount of violence.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult
Calmly, slowly, she reached behind with her left hand and came up against—yes, fabric. Fine linen, to be precise. So far, so good: she was inside a wardrobe, after all. The only problem was that this linen was oddly warm. Body warm. Beneath the tentative pressure of her palm, it seemed to be moving….
With terrifying suddenness, an ungloved hand clamped roughly over her nose and mouth. A long arm pinned her arms against her sides. She was held tightly against a hard, warm surface.
“Hush,” whispered a pair of lips pressed to her left ear. “If you scream, we are both lost.”