A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
Talk to your kids 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?
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