The Agency 1: A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House - Y.S. Lee 3.5 starsWhile this book is easily categorized as "Young Adult" book, it's only because the main character, Mary Quinn, is 17 years old. Don't let the YA tag fool you; this book isn't just for tweens and teens. It's got a good mystery at its heart, and as the first in a series, it builds a solid cast of characters (almost all female) that will follow us through the series.We first meet Mary at 12, where she's standing before a judge, awaiting her sentence on the charge of housebreaking. Mary plead guilty and didn't put up a defense. She knew she was guilty, why fight it? But when a sentence of hanging comes down... what? Mary has a few reactions, but mainly to a matron in half-mourning (lavender or purple to the uninitiated) who winks at Mary, and to the female warden, who seems to want to force Mary into a faint.When Mary awakens after being chloroformed, she finds herself with the matron, who offers her a new life. Mary is a child of the street - her father was a sailor who never returned from the sea; her mother tried to find honest work, but couldn't support them, so turned to prostitution, and then succumbed to illness - there was no money for medicine. So Mary's spent some time on the streets; she's afraid that the matron's offer might be worse than death. But it turns out, the matron is truly offering her a new life, if Mary chooses it -- a life that includes an education in a special school for girls and tries to help them to find honest and gainful employment, such as a clerk, teacher, or nurse.Fast forward, and now Mary's 17. She's graduated from the school, and she's tried her hand at several different occupations, without much luck. Partly, because Mary's heart isn't engaged - she's just not interested or motivated enough to be a clerk or teacher, and she didn't fare too well trying to be a nurse. What now? But Anne and Felicity (Flick), who head the school, aren't worried. They've another opportunity to offer Mary - one they've had in mind for her since she was 12. Seems the girls' school also secretly houses The Agency - a discreet operation that employs young girls and women in private investigation. In this man's world of London, who notices a woman? Who thinks she might be dangerous or listening? Mary jumps at the chance and starts a one-month intensive course of training.Her first assignment is a "friend" (aka companion) to a spoiled merchant's daughter. Mr. Thorold is suspected of insurance fraud and smuggling precious jewels from other countries. Mary is to observe and report only. But the Thorold household is anything but usual. Mrs. T is an invalid who goes out daily to visit a myriad of doctors and specialists. Angelica Thorold is a gifted pianist, but a spoiled girl, who was brought up for nothing more than marriage. While she's a merchant's daughter, she's a RICH merchant's daughter. So naturally, men of the merchant class are swarming about her, most notably, Geoffrey Easton. Geoff and his brother James are engineers with a current contract to build a passageway under the Thames, and the hope of a contract in India to build bridges. James has heard of possible unscrupulous dealings by Thorold, and he doesn't want his family or his business associated with rogues. So James sets off to investigate, too.During a party, Mary decides to investigate Thorold's home office. But when she does, she herself hiding in a wardrobe - with James Easton! Just what has James to do with any of this, she wonders. While she doesn't give herself or her mission away, Mary and James learn that each is intent on uncovering Thorold's secrets, so they eventually decide to team up. James is impressed with Mary's ability to disguise herself in boy's clothing, pick locks, and charm guard dogs.Just when they think they're on to something, they get the surprise of their lives to discover that Mrs. T. might not be such an invalid, after all. Is it possible that she's having a torrid affair? Or is something more nefarious going on in her private house across town?And what does the Lascars home for Asian seamen have to do with any of this? We learn that Mary has more secrets - she's 1/2 Asian, as her father was a member of the Lascars seamen. It might have been one of Thorold's ships, purposely over-weighted and doomed to go down with any large wave that shipwrecked and killed her father. Mary doesn't want to be known as half-Asian. There's too much suspicion and hatred attached to being so. She's half-caste to the Asians (not accepted) and half nothing to the English. So Mary chooses to keep her secret a bit longer... but she does recover a family jade pendant.Will Mary and James be able to solve the mystery of Thorold's holdings before Mary's assignment runs out? What are Mr. Gray and Angelica up to - are they the masterminds behind the fraud and thefts?---------------A good first book in a series - very enjoyable to read. Clear, concise, and characters true to form. It's pleasant to encounter another possible side to life in Victorian London - one where women are not only useful, but intelligent, trained, and take-charge!The tension is palpable between James and Mary... and the reader wonders if they'll start a relationship. But how can that be if Mary is to be part of The Agency?This book is smart and inventive. Never forget the discussion about how women are overlooked - it's key to solving the entire mystery!