I don't think I'd have read this if it hadn't been for my local public library's very limited Overdrive e-book holdings. I decided I wanted to read a mystery, and this was one of the few mysteries immediately available for checkout that looked interesting to me.
On to the story. At the age of 12, Mary was saved from being hung as a thief and was given the chance to become a student at Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. When Mary is 17, she is given another opportunity: if she wishes, she may become a spy for the Agency, an organization connected to the school. Mary's skills as a thief allow her to have a shorter training period than normal, and, only one month later, she begins her first assignment. Her job is to listen in on conversations in the Thorold household and hopefully acquire information about Mr. Thorold's smuggling activities. To make her work easier, Mary takes a job as the new paid companion of Angelica Thorold, Mr. Thorold's daughter.
Mary is a pretty terrible novice spy. She becomes bored with her work after only a few days. Her impatience prompts her to take greater risks, which result in her activities being discovered by James Easton. Luckily for her, James is doing some spying of his own and can't turn her in without drawing attention to himself. George, James's brother, is in love with Angelica, and James is concerned that Mr. Thorold may be involved in something that could become trouble for his family if George ends up marrying Angelica. He wants to find proof of his suspicions before it's too late, so he proposes that he and Mary work together as a team.
This book started out fairly rough, with pages and pages of expository dialogue. Felicity and Anne, two of the Agency's senior members, had Mary recite the details of her early life and family for no real reason other than getting readers up to speed. They then helpfully told readers that Mary was “brave, tenacious, and decisive” (16), as well as shy of strangers and men in particular, in possession of a bad temper, and not fond of being corrected. Oh, and also that there was something “exotic” (14) about her appearance – they and others kept pointing out Mary's dark eyes and hair, as though all English people were blond and blue-eyed.
The action picked up a little after that, although the writing was never what I would call “subtle.” Based on her actual behavior, as opposed to what Felicity and Anne had said about her, I'd say that Mary was impatient and too much of a risk-taker, but at least good at thinking on her feet. She made a lot of mistakes, starting with her decision to disobey orders and begin investigating on her own. I expected her bosses to gently chastise her for putting herself in danger and then praise her for having the courage to take the initiative and do some extra investigating on her own. I was pleasantly surprised when Mary's bosses rightfully chastised her not just once, but several times. She was never exactly punished, but it was made clear that her behavior hadn't been appreciated and had made things harder on the primary agent (who Mary knew existed, but never got to meet).
At certain points, Mary was investigating so many suspicious characters that I had trouble remembering what it was she was originally supposed to be doing. There was Mr. Thorold and his supposed smuggling operation, Mrs. Thorold and her possible affair, and the secret meetings between Angelica and Michael, Mr. Thorold's secretary. In addition, things were further complicated by a slight romantic subplot involving James Easton, because of course. At least James agreed with me that Mary was a reckless novice who had a high likelihood of getting herself killed.
All in all, A Spy in the House was a “meh” read for me. If I continue reading this series, I hope that Mary becomes a less frustrating heroine who learns from her mistakes.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)