Mary Quinn is back in this exciting sequel to A Spy in the House. Now, a full-fledged member of The Agency, she is given her first official assignment. She is to pose as an apprentice builder to investigate the suspicious death of a bricklayer at St. Stephen’s Tower- the unfinished Houses of Parliament. Thankfully petite Mary is able to don the ragged garb, chop off her hair and pose as a young man. As “Mark” she introduces us to the world of the working poor. Mary’s assignment brings forth memories of her own difficult childhood on the streets of London, where she once dressed as a boy for her own safety.
Mary is thrust into this underbelly of squalor and depravity. She attempts to aid Jenkins, another young worker on the job site while investigating the mysterious case. If all that wasn’t difficult enough, Mary’s old sparring partner James Easton is again in the picture. Back from India, a weakened James coincidentally enters Mary’s building site. Will James keep her secret or blow her cover? And more importantly, will their acquaintance lead to romance?
Lee again makes Victorian London a focus of this novel. Through Mary the reader is able to view the horrors of poverty. Reminiscent of Dickens, the back alleys and dark basements roil with filth and sadness . Class distinctions and gender roles pigeon-hole many of the characters. Through her work for the Agency, Mary is able to transcend these. Identity is a major theme in this novel. As Mary hides her femaleness by cutting her hair and binding her chest, she is also hiding deeper secrets. Described as exotic, we learned that Mary is half Chinese in the first installment of The Agency. Her real last name is Lang, but was changed to better assimilate into British society. She has so far shunned this part of herself, shutting out memories of her past. While distancing herself from her Asian roots, Mary has also learned to use her heritage to her advantage. She easily treads the boundaries of class, race and gender.
I have already said I am a fan of this series. Victorian England, mysteries, and intriguing protagonist, Lee delivers another winner. Through the course of the first two novels, Mary has matured. I am curious to see Mary as she grows in age, experience and confidence. The third book in The Agency series, The Traitor and The Tunnel is next on my list.