A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1 Book Poster Image

A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1

Spunky heroine, but Victorian spy/love tale doesn't impress.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Readers learn about poverty, social class, gender bias, and police work in Victorian London. Families can discuss how times have changed and in what ways they haven't. 

Positive messages

Mary lived as a street kid and stole to survive after being orphaned in 1850, but a stranger rewards her resilience, bravery, and independence by rescuing her and giving her an education at a girls' academy. She becomes a law-abiding citizen and is recruited to work for a spy agency composed of women, who are considered “naturally” better at espionage and observation. There are many spunky female characters.

Positive role models

Mary is feisty, smart, and resourceful but not particularly kind or wise. Her romantic interest is a 20-year-old man who is a beacon of courage, wisdom, and compassion.


As the book opens, 12-year-old Mary is sentenced to hang for theft. A 10-year-old boy is found murdered.


Mary's employer, a married man, has impregnated more than one servant girl; the most recent one disappeared while six months pregnant. His wife is later rumored to be having an affair. Some kissing scenes.


A few uses of "hell" and "damn."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One scene in which a household servant is very drunk.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this  story of a female spy, set in the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, includes the murder of a 10-year-old boy and has some scenes that put feisty main character Mary in danger. Mary goes undercover in the home of Mr. Thorold, who has impregnated many servant girls, and his wife is apparently having an affair. Some gritty details in the prologue explore the danger and poverty in the seamy side of lower-class London. Overall, this is more of a romance than a detective or adventure story, suitable for readers 13 and up.

What's the story?

In Victorian England, 12-year-old Mary is rescued from the gallows and offered a top-notch education at Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. A quick learner, she's already an assistant teacher at the academy five years later. Bored but bold, Mary asks the directors whether there's anything more exciting she could do and is pleasantly surprised when they offer her a place in the Agency, which is so esteemed that Scotland Yard hires its spies to solve mysteries. The Agency employs only women because it finds them especially observant and able to pass easily among the men who underestimate them. Mary is quickly sent on her first mission and must pose as a lady's companion in the home of a shipping magnate. The young woman she works for appears to be dim and somewhat vicious, but it turns out she has big secrets of her own, as do many in the household. Soon Mary is wearing disguises and breaking into buildings, attracting suitors, and discovering secrets about her own past. This is the first book in the Mary Quinn Mystery series.

Is it any good?


A SPY IN THE HOUSE is more Victorian romance than mystery, with preposterous plot lines and  a predictably spunky heroine. The Agency is described as elite, but nothing is revealed about what makes its detectives so special other than the fact that no one pays any attention to females and that women have better observational skills than men. Mary is quick-witted and throws a mean punch, but the premise is never developed, and the ridiculous plot resolutions detract from it. Readers who want romance or mystery might want to try Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes instead.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the premise that women made better spies than men in Victorian times. Does the story prove that premise? What about today? Are there any reasons women would make better spies?

  • Mary barely survived her impoverished childhood; what other fates might kids like Mary have faced in Victorian times? Did she have any alternatives?

  • Many of the characters hide secrets about who they are or what they're doing. Which revelation was the most surprising to you? Which was the most believable?

  • Mary has to hide her Asian ancestry. What cultural beliefs of the time made that necessary?

Book details

Author:Y.S. Lee
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Candlewick Press
Publication date:March 9, 2010
Number of pages:335
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 17

This review of A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1 was written by

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Teen, 16 years old Written bystorygirl March 6, 2012

"On the brink of going too far"

This book could have been very good if it wasn't on the brink of going too far in several parts. For me and my family "on the brink" is already too far. At one piont the heroin unknowingly opens a porn book, and then she shuts it imediately, but not before you are given a description of what she saw! Some bad words are said, or almost said (but you think them, and fill in the gaps where they should be) so it has the same affect as when you actually see them in print.
What other families should know
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Teen, 14 years old Written byArry August 17, 2013

Great book!

This is actually one of my favourite books. I don't think it's so much for a younger audience, because there is a bit of mild cussing and insinuations of inappropriate things. But I love Mary. She's such a good character: obviously flawed but her better qualities make up for it. And, come on, the plot wasn't that bad. It was emotional and interesting. And, seeing as Ying herself is Chinese, it was interesting to see how a half Chinese coped in Victorian England, when they were condemned so much by the people. Actually, this book was very factually correct for a modern author. It's an enjoyable light read. The sequels are even better, and I can't wait for "Rivals"!
What other families should know
Educational value
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing