Published by Candlewick Press on October 26th 2010
Genres: Europe, Family, Historical, Mysteries & Detective Stories, Orphans & Foster Homes, Young Adult
Introducing an exciting new series! Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this diverting mystery trails a feisty heroine as she takes on a precarious secret assignment. Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.
This review is for a feature that Read Diverse Books has going, called Read Diverse Books Year Round. The goal is to read and review books from marginalized voices, #ownvoices, etc., which can include themes such as race, LGBTQA+, and disabilities. If you want to join in on this feature, check out the Read Diverse Books site (linked above) for more information!
When Mary is sentenced to the gallows for thievery at a young age, she is saved by the orchestrates of a school called Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she learns skills to help her become an independent woman until she is 17, when she is told the secret of the academy: the academy also includes a top secret group of female investigators, and they want Mary to become one of their agents. Eager to find a position she loves, Mary accepts, and her first assignment is to pose as a lady’s companion at a rich merchant’s house to uncover the secrets behind his sketchy trades. There are secrets around every corner, and Mary will need all her training to find the truth.
I love the premise for this book. Academies with ulterior motives are my favorite, and this one is no exception. Lee does a fabulous job of capturing the historical setting and especially honing the frustrations Mary feels as a woman of the time, whose options for a career are so limited. Mary is also biracial (half Chinese, half Irish), but can pass as white, and she has to be extremely cautious of anyone finding out because of how worse the prospects are for a woman of color. Lee tackles those harsh truths magnificently, and it’s great to see more diverse historicals that discuss race issues.
While I love the premise, the sass, and the surprising villain, I had a hard time really getting into the story. I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t dying to find out what was going to happen next. The mystery builds a bit slowly, and parts of it were predictable. However, I can definitely see others really getting into it, and I think it was mostly just not the best fit for me. I absolutely still recommend it, though, to readers who love a good historical mystery with top notch diversity, some flirty banter, and a surprise twist at the end.