(Note: mild spoilers for Book #1, A Spy in the House.)
This has been a fun series to read in the evenings when winding down: the plotting is nicely propulsive, historical London is very well-centered, and Mary Quinn (née Lang) remains an engaging protagonist. This sophomore entry in Lee’s The Agency series picks up about a year after the first book left off: she is now a full member of the all-ladies investigatory firm concealed within Miss Scrimshaw’s School for Girls, and her two superiors have offered her a particularly challenging assignment: to disguise herself as a boy and work at a building site where there seems to be all manner of malfeasance, but most particularly, a recent dead body, which might be an accident or a murder. Mary accepts, though with the knowledge that this assignment might reopen the emotional scars of her adolescent time on the streets, which led ultimately to her arrest and close escape from the gallows (at the tender age of twelve).
Again, Lee, who has a PhD in Victorian literature, shows off her knowledge of the time without being too showy: the building site in question is the Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament and the home of Big Ben), which burned in 1834 and took over three decades to reconstruct. Lee demonstrates the culture of the worksite well: the hierarchy of the different jobs, the structure of a day on the site, and, of course (crucial to Mary’s work as an apparent 12-year-old boy), the role of child labor in Victorian England, and the details of housing and feeding oneself as a child laborer with no family. We also get asides into the popular newspaper culture of the day, and as someone who loves the history of print/periodicals, I am here for that shit.
Refreshingly, Mary isn’t always very good at certain parts of this job: not just the physical labor, but also concealing her unusual level of education, or even just figuring out when she can take a piss when she’s sharing a room and a bed (a common penny-pinching practice) when another underage worker who has no idea of her disguise. Nor does she particularly handle it well when James Easton, her flame from the previous novel, shows up to assess malpractice and thefts on the building site. (James is even more shocked to see her: he might be ravaged by malarial fever, which shocks Mary, but Mary is dressed as a guttersnipe boy, when the last time he saw her, she was pretending to a respectable young lady’s paid companion.)
Circumstances, naturally, conspire to throw them together to work on the case, and they both vacillate between suppressing and giving in to their attraction to one another, even as they inch their way closer to solving the murder and the thefts. I appreciate that Lee throws believable obstacles in their way (their work, Mary’s need for secrecy about her job and her past, James’s bourgeois prejudices), but also lets them be attracted to each other and mutually aware of it: their bickering from Book One has a friendlier, more teasing rhythm to it, and some of the spikiness comes from their long mutual absence as well as their mutual uncertainty about how to have a relationship at all (they’re both young! practically one another’s first serious flame).
Lee also introduces a new character who will recur: Octavius Jones, a journalist working for one of the many trashy rags published in London at the time, and while he is not set up as an alternative love interest for Mary (thank heavens, I weary of artificial love triangles), he is both a possible antagonist and a possible ally in her mission.
All in all, it’s another fun entry: a touch darker than the preceding one, given that we’ve moved from a fine London house with aspiring upper middle class schemers to a working-class worksite with actual murder and much nearer violence (there is a brief scene where another child worker is whipped, not to mention several fistfights). There’s also a little more dropped in about Mary’s biracial ancestry (she passes as white, but her father was a Chinese sailor who was lost at sea), and Lee clearly intends to follow this up much more in the next entry. An enjoyable diversion with lots of good historical context and a fun mystery plot: totally recommend.