Meet Mary Quinn: 12-year-old orphan, thief and pickpocket, sentenced to die for her crimes. Saved from the gallows, she’s transformed from a street urchin into a fine young example of womanhood, thanks to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy For Girls. On the cusp of her 17th birthday, she learns that the Academy is a front for Victorian London’s top secret women’s detective agency—and she is invited to join.
Mary’s first assignment places her in the household of a wealthy merchant suspected of sabotaging his own cargo ships in an insurance fraud scheme. Employed as a companion for the Thorolds’ daughter, Mary must entertain the miserable girl while trying to unearth any incriminating data. As it turns out, she’s not the only one seeking this information . . . and the Thorold family aren’t the only ones with secrets to protect.
A Spy in the House is, by any yardstick, an excellent novel. A fine whodunit, with clues carefully rationed out as the story evolves, it also holds some great surprises likely to catch even the sharpest readers off guard. There’s keener plotting and more depth to the characters than in many “adult” mysteries, and the grit and grime of London in the midst of a summer heat wave is palpable. Issues of race, class and the world’s oldest profession are tastefully interwoven with the story; much is made clear from the context in which it appears, but parents should be prepared to answer a few questions if they arise.
Mystery novels for younger readers often rely on excessive humor or quirkiness to offset the scariness inherent to suspense. This can disappoint a reader looking for a “real” mystery. A Spy in the House is entirely true to the genre, full of thrills and danger and wonderfully sharp writing. That’s the good news. Even better is that this is just the first part of a planned trilogy, so those of us who are already hooked can look forward to two more novels. I, for one, can't wait. Long live The Agency!
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer. She lives and works in Ukiah, California.