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Spy in the House, by Ying Lee.

May 5, 2013

Spy in the House, by Ying Lee.  The Agency Series, Book 1.  Candlewick (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 352 pages.

A delightful historical mystery about a young woman detective in Victorian London.

There is nothing anachronistic about Ying Lee’s female detective.  In her book, all the strongly held assumptions of gender and everything else about nineteenth-century London are firmly in place.  A few women simply figure out how to evade the restrictions placed on their sex and create meaning lives for themselves apart from marriage.  Their base is Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a school for “disadvantaged girls” where they can have the benefits of a good education and perhaps move out of poverty and into marriage or a job teaching.  Acting alongside the school, which serves as its cover, is the Agency, where a few bright, young women work solving mysteries for well-paying claimants. their rationale is

Here we turn the stereotype of meek female servants to our advantage. Because women are to be foolish, silly, and weak, we are in a position to observe and learn more effectively than a man….women, posing as a governess or domestic servant, for example, are often totally ignored.”

In addition, they believed women were often “more perceptive” because they are “less arrogant.”  They make “fewer assumptions and take less for granted.”

Instead of being hanged for robbery, Mary Quinn ends up at the school and eventually joins the Agency.  Spy in the house is about her first case.  She is sent to the home of a merchant, who may be smuggling valuable artifacts from India into London.  Her assigned role is to be a companion to his bored and selfish daughter, while trying to find evidence of criminal activities by her father.  What results is a commentary on various aspects of wealthy Londoners and a rollickingly good story full of surprises that I am not willing to share with possible readers.   Suffice it to say that the story is not as “lily white” as the vast majority of stories about Victorian life.  After all, London at that time was the hub of a vast empire. Chinese sailors were stranded there.

Ying Lee is very knowledgeable about the setting of her story.  Born in Singapore and raised in Canada, she continues to live in Kingston.  She completed her Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture in 2004.  In addition to having written three novels about Mary Quinn, she has published a more scholarly book, Masculinity and the English Working Class.  I love Lee’s shift of historian to novelist and think she has found a creative use of what she learned in grad school.

 Spy in the House, and the other novels in the Agency series, are marketed as Young Adult books, a category I seldom chose to read.  I am glad I was not put off by the label, however.  Nothing about the story detracted from its entertainment appeal for adult who enjoys historical fiction and/or mystery novels.  Lee herself says that she originally wrote the book for an adult audience, but her agent suggested that, given the coming of age element of the story, they publish it for Young Adult readers.  Probably that was a wise decision.  I suspect the series has more impact here.  I just wished I knew some teenage girls with whom I could share a copy.

Lee also identifies her books as feminist novels, saying that because she is a feminist so are her novels. Niranjana includes them in her excellent article on “Feminist YA Fiction” article in Herizons, article all of you interested in YA literature need to read and consider.  I am generally rather narrow in what I consider feminist in novels, but Spy in the House certainly presents an engaging role model for being the strong, capable women that any feminist can cheer.  Romance is a possibility in the book, but never as a solution or rescue.  And it is simply a fun book to read.

I highly recommend this book for all, young or old, who enjoy a good story well told, especially ones with some mystery and suspense in a well-drawn historical setting.


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 7, 2013 1:52 pm

    A fine review.

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