Review: „The Agency – A Spy in the House” by Y.S Lee – first part of the trilogy.
Short intro into the series.
The Victorian era should be called the Age of Hypocrisy, especially when you compare the morals, allegedly high, with the real, rather uncivilized situation of women and the poor. For a modern person it’s sometimes difficult to understand why women, even those rich and/or famous, usually could neither work nor pursue their interests and hobbies freely. Florence Nightingale and Clara Schumann were just two exceptions to this rule. As Victorian morality espoused sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and precisely outlined roles for both sexes, women were often forced to marry or left to starve. Generally, if you failed to fit in you were severely punished. An era with so many contrasts is always an interesting setting for a book or a movie, especially if the main hero or heroine comes from the underprivileged – this simple truth was grasped very well by Dickens and other writers and painters as well. After all, who doesn’t love seeing an underdog getting his or her sporting chance against all odds?
Mary Lang, the main character in the book, is unquestionably such an underdog. She was born in London; her father, a Chinese merchant sailor, had perished in a shipwreck. As a result of such a blow her mother, a seamstress, had a miscarriage, fell ill, lost her job, became a prostitute and finally died. Mary had no choice – she joined an army of street urchins, so numerous and notorious at that time, to earn (or rather steal) her living. First, the girl trained as a pickpocket and then she progressed to more lucrative but also more dangerous burglary. Although intelligent and skilled, she finally got caught. As it was only too common in the 19th century, the judge sentenced her “to hang by the neck until she was dead”. Here the action begins because, contrary to the sentence, Mary is not executed. She is rescued from the gallows by an organization which actively looks for clever girls in dire straits to help them. Do I have to add it is led by women only? Officially they run one of many private London schools – “Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls” – but it is hardly a typical Victorian institution. Giving poor, neglected girls a real second chance in the form of a paid job is one of its aims. Not that the job choice is rich. A young, properly educated woman could work as a clerk, a nurse, a teacher, a lady companion, a governess. Finally, she might become a high-class mistress or a wife if it suited her and she was attractive enough. None of these career choices appeal to Mary so her tutors suggest something highly unorthodox. Some carefully selected pupils are asked to join the ranks of an elite top secret corps of female private investigators, known as the Agency, employed even by the government as they are known for solving the most intricate cases. Mary is overjoyed at this prospect. It might give her not only an active interest in work but also a truly professional satisfaction – all things usually reserved for men. Will she be able to fulfill her duties in a satisfactory way, though? Can her mixed racial origin – the only secret she hasn’t revealed to her benefactors, or anybody, yet- become an obstacle? Or maybe she will find a young man she would like to marry?
Mary’s first mission consists in spying on a rich merchant, Mr. Thorold, who is suspected of smuggling precious Hindu artifacts and arranging shipwrecks in order to obtain compensation payments. Officially she is hired by Mrs. Thorold, a very sickly woman, to accompany her only child, Angelica. Mary must work fast, she is left alone and, although she tries her best, she can’t find even one shred of useful evidence. Her task becomes even more difficult when other people get secretly involved in checking Mr.Thorold’s interests – Mary’s path is crossed by James Easton, a young engineer whose older brother, George, has fallen in love with Angelica and wants to marry her as soon as possible. Practical James doesn’t consider it such a great idea, though. After several encounters, some of them rather embarrassing for both, James and Mary decide to cooperate but they don’t trust each other – Mary can hardly tell him the whole truth about her role so he becomes suspicious of her very soon. The plot thickens as some innocent people die apparently for no reason at all. It soon becomes obvious that the culprit, no matter who they are, is very ruthless and won’t stop at anything to save their skin. Mary is also haunted by the shadows of her past as she must visit the Imperial Baptist East London Refuge for Destitute Asiatic Sailors during her secret investigation. Will she find traces of her father there? Will it help to find the evidence she is looking for? Will she manage to meet the deadline, set by the Agency’s clients?
What I liked:
I love the whole idea of a book about the Victorian era in which the characters recognize and try to correct some social flaws of that time. I would say if such an Agency never existed, (and most probably it didn’t, but you’ll never know, they were definitely more secretive than James Bond) it’s lovely somebody invented it. As this somebody happens to have her PHD in Victorian literature and culture, the book is properly researched, every detail rings true and it never fails to entertain you– even with the stinking river Thames in the background. The pace of narration is quick and the plot – well composed, making this book is a real page-turner; once you start it, you can’t put it down till the very end. I only hope the second part, to be released soon, will match this one.
What I didn’t like:
I must admit that the identity of the baddie was rather easy to predict but this fact didn’t diminish the fun of following Mary and James and their pursuit. Also this book was too short.
The final verdict:
One of better books I’ve come across recently, definitely worth reading!