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A Spy in the House: The Agency #1    by Y. S. Lee order for
Spy in the House
by Y. S. Lee
Order:  USA  Can
Candlewick, 2010 (2010)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Saved from the gallows (to which the twelve-year-old was sentenced for housebreaking in 1853 London), Mary Lang is offered a place at Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls and becomes Mary Quinn. The school was founded by a wealthy woman to help others of her own sex 'achieve a measure of independence.' A few select students (a seventeen-year-old Mary included) are offered the opportunity to join The Agency, which uses talented young women (invisible to society in roles as meek governesses or domestic servants) as investigators. Mary is excited about the opportunity but keeps a secret of her own.

Mary Quinn's first field job is as a lady's companion to spoiled, selfish Angelica Thorold, whose wealthy merchant father, Henry Thorold, is suspected of financial crimes and also of smuggling artifacts, stolen from Hindu temples during the Indian Mutiny. When Mary does a bit of digging through her employer's office during a party, and is forced to hide in a cupboard, she discovers that someone else is investigating the family. Though at first, Mary and young engineer James Easton are at cross purposes (he suspects her of being Henry's mistress and she punches him on the nose) they eventually join forces and share (most of) their findings.

Suspects range from Henry himself to his secretary Michael Gray who meets often with Angelica. And Mary wonders about the ailing Mrs Thorold's weekly medical appointments, as most society doctors make house calls - could the seemingly frail matron be having an affair? The trail leads Mary and James to The Imperial Baptist East London Refuge for Destitute Asiatic Sailors, where Mary learns of missing cargo ships, 'lost Lascars' and insurance fraud. A window opens into her own past, but then closes again in a deadly fire. There are murders and great peril for the investigative duo before the case is closed.

A Spy in the House makes an engaging beginning to this new Agency series, with its rich setting in Victorian London. I look forward to sharing further adventures - and learning more of Mary's own history - in the second Mary Quinn mystery, The Body at the Tower.

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