A Spy in the House, the first book in The Agency/Mary Quinn Mystery series feels like a rarity in the realm of Young Adult fiction. Whereas virtually every other series of books you might find in the YA section involves either some form of magic or a futuristic dystopia, the books in The Agency series are a throwback. They are like Nancy Drew for modern times, though ironically they are set in the Victorian era.

A Spy in the House might also be considered a crossover novel. The writing is unflinching in telling of the exploitation and violence that stalked the lower classes and outsiders of Victorian England. It’s also handled in a mature way that can appeal to both adolescents and adults. While Y.S. Lee’s debut borrows heavily from some cliches (e.g. the orphaned heroine), she also takes it in some refreshing new directions, which I’ll get into beyond the jump. Any attempt to simplify or categorize the book doesn’t really do it justice, however. Quite simply, the story works because it is fun and engaging.

Lee uses her background as a scholar of Victorian literature to good effect in telling the story of Mary Quinn, a street urchin who is saved from hanging by a reform school. After progressing through the school to become a teacher, she gains the knowledge that the school is actually a front for a secret agency. Lee knows the particular expectations that Victorian society places on women.  So the agency carries out work that women have the distinct opportunity to do: to blend in, be unnoticed and unheard.

She offers historical details of daily life that flavour the narrative. She tries for a formalness in the dialogue without belabouring it. Though it sometimes errs a bit on the colloquial side, it strikes a fine balance between historical accuracy and accessibility. The author extends this crossing between the historical period and our time by having characters with seemingly modern sensibilities. This might feel like a cheat, but as Lee herself points out that this is fiction in the jacket notes:

If a top secret women’s detective agency existed in Victorian England, it left no evidence – just as well, since that would cast serious doubt on its competence. The Agency is a totally unrealistic, completely fictitious antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like Mary Quinn.

There were other aspects of Lee’s writing that had more mixed results. It was nice to have second third person narrative POV rather than rely on the tried and true first person so common these days. However doing so early on in the story eliminated a potential source of mystery and tension in this second character. I also didn’t get sense that Mary had a particularly major role in resolving the case, but that also seems in line with an agent’s first mission and it will be interesting to see how active she becomes in later novels. The dysfunctional Victorian family at the heart of the mystery wasn’t fleshed out fully, with somewhat nebulous motivations and reactions. The story also relied on some coincidence along the way, although the largest coincidence did not really affect the plot but added layer of motivation for the heroine.

The most striking aspect of A Spy in the House requires a minor spoiler alert to discuss.

The novel not only addresses the travails of women in Victorian times, it also involves the life of minorities, particularly the Chinese, during that time period. For historical fiction set in Victorian England to not only dwell on minorities but make one of them the main character is an exciting development, especially when the work is aimed at younger readers. So much of the culture depicted in English period works is monolithic. It gets to the point that when underrepresented portions of the population are introduced, it feels forced (take Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose-Jack Ross subplot for example), even when evidence suggests there were a lot more minorities present than most people think.

By making Mary Quinn’s heritage not only key to her own backstory but an important plot point, Lee’s efforts to better represent Chinese characters in Victorian fiction becomes organic. It’s a laudable effort but if the story weren’t good, it wouldn’t matter. This novel is and it’s all the more impressive for being a debut.

I can’t wait to get cracking on the second one.

My rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)