Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publishing Date: April 2009
Genre: young adult, mystery, historical fiction
Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there?
Mary Lang is sentenced to death at age 12 for thievery when a young lady saves her and offers her a place at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Eager to start a new life, Mary accepts and changes her name to Quinn. By the time she’s 17, she is asked to become a member of an undercover all-female detective agency. She is placed in a prominent household as a companion to a spoiled daughter, and is supposed to uncover the truth about a series of shipwrecks pertaining to smuggled artifacts. But what she finds out, and who she works with, is the biggest surprise of all.
For diving into the book knowing absolutely nothing about it, I really enjoyed it. It was a quick read, and Lee certainly knows her Victorian history and culture. I was happy to see all aspects of Victorian London in the 1850s addressed: the snobbery of the upper class, the poor on the streets in filth, the Great Stink from the Thames, opium use, the influx of Asian sailors, and the oppression of women. Apart from Dickens, authors rarely remark upon the hushed-up or negative aspects of life of that time. If anything, these are mentioned in passing while the upper class characters go about their country holiday. This was, ironically, refreshing!
Mary is an exception in Victorian culture. She is part Chinese and part Irish, but her features both help and hinder her navigation through society. Porcelain white English women know she looks different and assume she has black Irish, Spanish, or French ancestors, and Chinese women consider her too white to be a part of their culture. Not only is her race enough to make her an outcast, but her orphaned life, childhood crimes, and headstrong will sets her apart as well. She has “ideas” and “notions” and likes to be independent. It makes her job in the Agency easy. She’s already tough for a woman, and no one will pay attention to her in the household because of her outcast status, so snooping should be easy.
Another aspect that I found refreshing in this mystery was the love interest — or lack thereof. James Easton is a charming man and thoroughly believes in Mary’s capabilities to be an independent woman. Mary stayed true to her character throughout the book and wouldn’t toss all responsibilities aside, though, and I’m grateful for that.
What prevented me from giving this book five stars was the lack of urgency on her assignment. It sounded, from the very beginning, like another agent already had most of the work done and Mary would only be in the way. And as Mary continued to search for clues, three or four different plots spun in different directions, to the point where I’d forgotten what Mary’s original assignment was. Thankfully they all linked together in a cohesive manner, but it almost felt as if Mary wasn’t needed in the first place.