The following is a paper written for class, about a YA series, its genre characteristics, appeal factors, and potential use in readers’ advisory.
There are three books in The Agency series. The first book, A Spy in the House (Candlewick, 2010, 352 pages), tells the story of Mary Lang in London, in 1853. Mary is a twelve-year-old girl who is about to be hanged for breaking and entering a house. Instead, she is rescued and given what feels like a miraculous second chance. Renamed Mary Quinn, she is brought to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, where she is given a home and an education.
The story picks up again three years later, when Mary is working at the Academy, teaching younger girls. Although she knows that the opportunity she’s been given to be an educated woman is unique and wonderful, Mary has become restless. She approaches her teachers for guidance, and discovers that Academy works in partnership with the Agency, a network of female spies. The social structures of Victorian London mean that a young woman in domestic service will largely be ignored, allowing her to hear sensitive and useful information.
Mary’s first assignment is to pose as a wealthy young lady’s companion, in the household of the Thorold family in London. The Agency wants to gather preliminary information about Mr. Thorold’s shipping business and financial dealings, before a more seasoned agent comes to take Mary’s place. Although Mary is assigned to observe passively and maintain her role as a lady’s companion and maid, she struggles with her impatience on a number of levels. Mr. Thorold and his secretary, Michael Gray discuss business at home, so Mary can’t pick up needed tidbits by listening in the drawing room or eavesdropping. Angelica is spoiled and resentful of having Mary as an assigned companion, and does nasty little things to Mary, like digging her fingernails into a burn on Mary’s hand. Angelica is engaged to be married to George Easton, a marriage more about a business alliance between the Thorold family and the Easton family. And Mrs. Thorold is sickly, only leaving the house to visit her doctors, which is unique for a woman of her class, but dismissed as a wealthy hypochondriac’s affectation.
Bored and impatient, Mary does some sleuthing of her own in Thorold’s study. The mysterious gentleman who catches her, while also snooping there, turns out to be James Easton, George’s brother, who is equally suspicious of Mr. Thorold’s financial dealings. Although Mary doesn’t reveal herself as a spy, she and James form a wary partnership, bickering and bantering as their search for clues takes them all over London, to Thorold’s warehouses and to explore a possible connection with the Lascars (a home for aged sailors.) Along with the clues of the evolving mystery, there is also a subplot involving Angelica eloping with Michael Gray, Thorold’s secretary. There are hints of a revelation about Mary’s past and her ancestry having something to do with China, ripe for exploration in further books in the series. In the climactic confrontation, it emerges that Mrs. Thorold was, in fact, the mastermind and villainous saboteur, instead of the invalid she appeared to be.
In terms of genre, A Spy in the House predominantly fits the characteristics of historical fiction, although it also incorporates some elements of suspense and mystery, particularly in terms of pacing and mood. The plot hinges on the setting and frame, in terms of culture and in terms of geography. The idea of an Agency of trained female spies relies on justifying an exception to the historically accurate gender norms in place in Victorian London, to allow for Mary’s boldness and intelligence in piecing together clues. In interviews, author Y.S. Lee describes the conscious decision to create the anachronistic Agency to allow for a resourceful and brave female detective character, as well as to allow some freedom to be playful and push the confines of historical fiction and mystery as genres. Descriptions of the streets of London, smothering and stinking in the grip of a heat wave contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere that prods Mary to take action and push the confines of her assignment with the Thorolds. While Joyce Saricks describes historical fiction as expansive in scope, taking place over years or decades, the scope of this novel is just the few days of Mary’s assignment. However, the meticulous descriptions of setting keep the pacing more measured. Genre elements of suspense include the narrow time frame of the plot, and a certain amount of mood. Focusing almost exclusively on Mary’s perspective, and on the progress she makes in piecing together clues grounds this story more as a historical mystery.
The level of detail of the historical descriptions, and some of the more complex choreography of the action scenes would make this book a good fit for an older middle grade reader, around 6th or 7th grade, and up, and possibly a girl reader because of the tight focus on Mary’s perspective. Because the focus is on capturing the overall atmosphere of Victorian London to use as a backdrop for the mystery, rather than tying to a specific historical event, it makes more sense to categorize this as a book for pleasure reading rather than something assigned in school. (It might make a fun title for a summer reading list, though.)
Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series, beginning with The Ruby in The Smoke brings a female protagonist into Victorian London, incorporating a suspenseful mood and some mysterious plot elements. The Gemma Doyle books, beginning with A Great And Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, incorporate Victorian England and a mystery with spooky fantasy elements. A reader more interested in the spy agency idea than the Victorian setting will enjoy the Gallagher Girl books by Ally Carter, starting with I’d Tell You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You, because they incorporate the idea of a special spy-training school for girls in a modern setting. Because they incorporate a less urban setting, with more fantasy and more arcane styles of language, the Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken might be a stretch, but could fit for a fan of Y.S. Lee.