At the ripe age of twelve, Mary Lang thinks she’s seen it all. As an orphan in Victorian England, Mary has known little other than poverty and misery, and when she’s sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, she almost welcomes death. But Mary is miraculously whisked away from the gallows to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The Academy provides free education and the prospect of a decent livelihood to promising girls, and Mary’s intelligence and spirit have deemed her worthy of rescue.
But Miss Scrimshaw’s doesn’t just produce governesses and companions. The Academy is in fact The Agency — a secret organization of female investigators who use the prevailing stereotypes of weak, helpless women as the perfect cover for their work. Now seventeen, Mary jumps at the chance to join the Agency. After learning code-cracking, lock-picking, pugilism, and more, Mary is ready for her first assignment: to investigate a shipping merchant suspected of smuggling antiques from India. Henry Thorold is a connected with the East India Company and the Far East Trading Company, and his daughter Angelica needs a companion. Enter Mary, now calling herself Mary Quinn.
But what should be a routine investigation is complicated by Angelica’s hostility, and by the opinionated James Easton’s interference in Mary’s activities. And when the trail leads to a refuge for retired Lascars (Asian sailors), Mary finds unforeseen danger. Secrets she’s guarded since her childhood threaten to unravel; the truth would lead to her undoing in London society. Solving the mystery of Thorold’s activities will take all of Mary’s considerable wit and courage — and discretion.
My main issue with genre fiction set in Victorian England is the tendency of these books to trivialize the implications of Britain’s colonial activities — the Empire is colorful background for a story that would work just as well in another setting. A Spy in the House places the damage wrought by (mercantile) colonialism at the center of its plot. Thorold’s luxury is “built on the backs of merchant sailors. International trade and dangerous labor [were] an unacknowledged, invisible source of wealth”. The ships were often overloaded in order to save on costs, especially when they were crewed by Lascars; such ships, which sank often, earned the name coffin ships.
Lee’s narrative is mindful of historical accuracy at every turn. While the Agency is indeed pure fantasy, it is one calibrated to espouse a historically-believable vision of feminine power rather than merely cater to modern-day sensibilities. And while Mary is very much a feminist, she never comes across as an anachronism, for her behavior reflects her character rather than any ideology. So, in all, I was very glad to see Mary and The Agency again in the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower. The tower of the title is St. Stephen’s Tower, more widely known as the clock tower that houses Big Ben.
Construction of the tower is twenty-five years behind schedule, madly over budget, and dogged by trouble, and Mary, in the guise of a young boy, joins the work crew on the building site to investigate the mysterious death of one of the bricklayers. As expected, James Easton reappears in a meaty role, and things progress nicely between the two. Lee’s narrative strengths (she is adept at withholding information so as to make readers pant for more, without skimping on plot detail) and command of the period are evidenced yet again in this installment, and she honors her teen audience’s often under-rated intelligence with her attention to historical detail. But while The Body… works well as a stand-alone mystery, many tantalizing loose ends from the first book continue to dangle at the end of this one. I assume All Will Be Revealed in The Traitor and the Tunnel, the concluding part of this trilogy to be published later this year. It’s going to be a long hard wait.
This review appears in the current edition of The Asian Review of Books.
Visit Lee’s website and blog here.