The Body at the Tower, by Y. S. Lee, was published in 2010 by Candlewick Press. It is the sequel to A Spy in the House.
Now nearly a fully-fledged member of the Agency, the all-female detective unit operating out of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary Quinn is back for another action-packed adventure. Disguised as a poor apprentice builder and a boy, she must brave the grimy underbelly of Victorian London—as well as childhood memories of fear, hunger, and constant want—to unmask the identity of a murderer. Assigned to monitor a building site on the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, Mary earns the confidence of the work crew, inching ever nearer her suspect. But if an irresistible desire to help the city’s needy doesn’t distract her and jeopardize her cover, unexpectedly meeting up with an old friend—or flame—just might.
I had a harder time getting through The Body at the Tower than I did A Spy in the House, and it’s once again because of the heavy-handedness of the Girl Power at the beginning of the book. I wish that Lee could find a better way to incorporate the premise of the book without indulging in such expositional, pamphlet-y detail, especially since her determination to get across the “we’re better than our female stereotypes” message at the beginning means that it’s only more noticeable that all of the men present in the book are profoundly stereotypical, including James.
I also didn’t find the mystery quite as surprising or as well-thought-out as the first book, since the moment the murderer showed up I knew that person was the culprit. It also wasn’t particularly complex, but I suppose some of the charm of the book is in the interaction between Mary and James. Speaking of interaction, I will say that Lee’s strength is in dialogue, not detail/description, which is probably why the beginning for me is very slow and very “brick-in-face.” But once the interaction between the characters begin, the book becomes much more engaging.
I do think, though, that the format of the books (Mary goes on assignment, starts investigating, runs into James, they investigate together, they get into scrapes together, they solve the case together, they separate at the end) might get a little tiring, so I hope Lee changes it up a little bit so it’s not so formulaic each time.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Murder, a small amount of violence.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult
“What did you do before coming here?”
She hesitated. Part of her wanted to shout, As if you don’t know! “Bits of all sorts, sit. Errands. Nothing as you’d call a trade.” That was truthful—and vague—enough.
“No. That’s quite clear.”
She waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “Why’s that, sir?” she asked eventually.
He nodded toward the scrolls of paper. “Your hands are soft and pale—not working hands.” That quarter smile reappeared, and this time there was a glint in his eyes. “Some might even say lady’s hands.”
The Body at the Tower is a bit disappointing, since I was hoping that things would be less expositional and more subtly woven into the world itself. But Lee once again starts out with a heavy amount of Girl Power, and then compounds that with portrayals of men that are ironically stereotypical considering her emphasis on the abolishment of female stereotypes. I do like the interactions between the characters, however, as dialogue is where Lee shines, but I hope that the next Agency book takes the plot—and the characters—in a new direction.
You can buy this here: The Body at the Tower