I adore Victorian crime novels. By that I mean books set in Victorian times. Not that there is anything wrong with Wilkie Collins. There isn’t. But I quite like a little modern flavour to a Victorian plot. I’m sure Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart could not have been written in the 19th century. Having said this, I feel that there may be just a little bit too much modern thinking in The Agency; A Spy in the House by Y S Lee, which I’ve just read.
The setting is very nicely Victorian, as it should be, since Ying has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and came over from Canada to London while doing research. It shows, and maybe a little too much. I think what I mean is that there is obvious Victorian research, coupled with a very 21st century mindset in some of the characters.
But it is a really good adventure and a great read. So if you want a female Alex Rider in Victorian London, then this is for you. Once I’d disconnected the modern women from the era of Wilkie Collins, I enjoyed A Spy in the House a lot. It’s the first in a trilogy about ‘The Agency’, which seems to be a secret women’s spy organisation. Female because women don’t count, so are not noticed, which is a nice premise. Perhaps nice isn’t the right word. Handy, is more accurate.
Mary Quinn (alias Lang) is only seventeen, but seems more mature, which could have something to do with her difficult early life. Apart from her own little secret, which she has so far not shared with anyone, she is very much a cousin of Sally Lockhart’s and she encounters her ‘Fred’ while on assignment.
The adventure is rather like The Ruby in the Smoke or The Moonstone, with smuggling, sinking boats, opium and Chinamen. Like Alex Rider Mary is surprisingly capable, but that’s good in a heroine. Her spy bosses are awfully 21st century, and I’m not sure I like them so much. Did enjoy James, Mary’s ‘Fred’, though. I trust we’ll see more of him.
I somehow missed this book when it was published in Britain last year, but it’s out in the US in March, and has been given a great Victorian cover, which I suppose they like ‘over there’.
I love the era as well. Good to support the writers who write in it, even if there learning does show–I’m sure the temptation to show it off a bit after all that hard work is enormous. But I bet the next novel will ease off a bit and just use the knowledge without driving it home to us.