A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1

Book review by
Debra Bogart, Common Sense Media
A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Spunky heroine, but Victorian spy/love tale doesn't impress.

Parents say

age 17+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 4 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

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 & Representations

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."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One scene in which a household servant is very drunk.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

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... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written bySara5667 July 4, 2019

Worth reading

It does have some educational value however the main characters are less historically accurate. The book is well written but quite explicit. It does follow many... Continue reading

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?

Book details

  • Author: Y.S. Lee
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Book type: Fiction
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication date: March 9, 2010
  • Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 17
  • Number of pages: 335
  • Last updated: July 13, 2017

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