by Y.S. Lee
It is May 1858, the beginning of London’s “Great Stink” — a blend of river pollution and heat wave that paralyzes the city. Tucked in the attic of a nondescript girls’ boarding school is the Agency, an intelligence service with a difference: it’s an elite, all-female group of private investigators with a reputation for getting things done. And it’s just hired a hotheaded, 17-year-old ex-thief whose on-the-job training goes completely wrong…
New agent Mary Quinn’s task is to pose as a lady’s companion and observe a merchant suspected of smuggling. But this straightforward assignment goes awry when Mary gets impatient and exceeds her mandate. Almost immediately, she finds competition in the shape of James Easton, an arrogant young man who’s doing some snooping of his own. They first tangle — literally — in a closet.
When pressed, Mary reluctantly joins forces with James. But as useful as the partnership may be, it’s also dangerous: their mutual attraction threatens to distract them from the real secrets of the merchant’s household. Eventually, they reveal a plot that threatens James’s life, as well as Mary’s own dark secrets…
There really is something so wonderful about a well written novel set in Victorian London. Lee's novel introduces you to a most extraordinary character – Mary – who is on her first assignment for the Agency and eager to do well. While reading this, I became so entranced by the involved plot that took some serious twists from where Mary begins her journey. The added romance and interesting characters sidetrack you a bit from why Mary really is there and how she can aide the Agency in gaining information about the Thorold family and their trade.
This novel draws you in so well that you wish it would go on forever. I think that this was a fantastic start to a new series and a realistic start to young Mary's position as an agent of The Agency. I cannot wait to see what lies in story for our heroine.
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When/How did you decide you wanted to become a novelist?
I always secretly wanted to be a novelist, but thought it was unrealistic and pretentious to admit it. As I was finishing up my PhD in Victorian literature and culture, I had this moment when I realized: it’s now or never. If I don’t write a novel now, I’ll have to get an academic job and this is my last chance so I’d better just do it.
What was the inspiration behind your novel The Agency?
I love the first 90% of Jane Eyre, but the ending makes me INSANE. I hate that Jane marries Rochester instead of taking her massive inheritance and going out into the world and doing something really interesting. It got me thinking about what choices a similar girl might have, if she were poor and uneducated. That was when the character of Mary Quinn crystallized for me.
What type of research did you put into your novel?
I did a lot of research even before I thought of writing a novel, because of my PhD research. For Spy, I specifically researched shipping insurance, Indian civil construction, and the details of various London neighbourhoods.
Which character is most like yourself in your novel?
This is a cliché, but I’m not like any of them. There are bits of me in each character but I don’t resemble any of them as a whole.
What types of books do you read when you find the time?
I lean towards contemporary literary fiction: Jane Gardam, Zoë Heller, Douglas Coupland. I also love travel writing and books about big ideas.