I am apparently just reading a lot of books set in Victorian England lately. I choose not to question this, and simply to embrace it while it lasts, because I’ll find another miniature streak to go on at some point. Besides, this is paired with quite a bit of Irish fiction that is not set in the 19th century, so I’m fine, right?
At any rate, Y. S. Lee’s A Spy in the House follows the adventures of Mary Quinn, a young woman who is saved from being hanged for theft by a pair of teachers who see potential in her, and recruit her to study at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, which is an educational institution, but is also the cover for an all-women investigative agency. Mary, being both plucky and not-stupid, accepts the opportunity, and several year later, finds herself on her first assignment, looking into the apparent smuggling and insurance fraud being perpetrated by London businessman Henry Thorold. Mary becomes the paid companion and chaperone to his daughter, Angelica, a petulant young woman (and gifted musician) who is being courted by a variety of suitors, including the brother of our secondary protagonist, James Eaton. James is suspicious of Thorold for his own reasons, and after a meet-cute in a wardrobe, where he and Mary wind up hiding when they are nearly caught snooping around Thorold’s rooms, they agree to team up to look into him. Mary finds herself trying to conceal the Agency from James, as well as to hide from everyone the way in which her inquiries start intersecting with her own past.
Lee’s debut novel is crisply-paced, and Mary is a likable protagonist with plenty of grit and determination, who is both constricted by the expectations of her era, and finds ways to take advantage of them, too. Lee completed a PhD on Victorian literature prior to starting her fiction series, and her familiarity with the era shows, particularly in the way she incorporates POC into the narrative: a major subplot involves a charity home for retired Asian sailors, which is the avenue by which we learn a major part of Mary’s past. Given recent and not-so-recent disputes about the inclusion of POC in period pieces, it’s refreshing to see an author skillfully demonstrate how one can accomplish inclusion while still working within the constraints of documented history. (No slight against writers who accomplish inclusion by rewriting the past, either; imagination works in all ways!) Moreover, Lee does a solid job of creating a historical setting with depth without sacrificing the movement of the plot.
Mary and James’s rapport builds naturally; they are both, in their way, talented and ambitious people, which at times leads to disputes, but is also what makes them a charming pair of romantic leads. The core mystery is satisfyingly resolved; a well-trained reader is likely to guess who the true villain is before the twist is revealed, but the reveal itself remains satisfying, and minor characters are also given their due. It is clear that the novel is part of a series, as a couple of subplots are left unresolved to be picked up in later installments, but my interest is certainly sufficiently piqued to seek those later installments out. Fair note: this series does need to be read in order, since Mary remains the primary protagonist throughout, with James appearing as well in most if not all of the subsequent novels.