Review: The Body at the Tower by Y. S. Lee

the body at the tower

I reviewed A Spy in the House last October, and almost seven months later I’m here with a review of the sequel The Body at the Tower.

It’s been almost a year since the events of A Spy in the House, and Mary Quinn has been hard at work training to be a fully-fledged spy for the all-female detective agency operating under the premises of the boarding school Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Mary has accepted an unusual assignment, far outside the Agency’s purview: rather than taking the guise of a maid or a governess or a ladies’ companion, Mary goes undercover as a twelve-year-old boy working at construction site next to the House of Parliament. There she is charged with investigating the possible murder of one John Wick, found dead at the foot of the clock tower, off of which all evidence points he was pushed from. This job brings up many difficulties for Mary, both anticipated—the memories of her past when she used to lived on the street and her carefully-guarded secret of her Chinese, mixed-race heritage—and unanticipated, in the form of her flame, Mr. James Easton.

In my previous review, I had waxed lyrical about the skill at which Y.S. Lee had made London in the late 1850s come to life, and she does so once again in The Body at the Tower. This story takes place in the common streets of of the city, far away from the drawing rooms of genteel households, in construction sites, pubs, boarding houses, docks, and slums. Just like before, Lee’s worldbuilding takes the form of details I’ve never seen included in stories set in the Victorian era. If you were ever interested in what a construction site in the mid-nineteenth century looked like and how it operated, this is the book for you.

As for Mary, she may have developed more patience and a better sense of caution than last time around, but she still has her work cut out for her with this assignment. Where A Spy in the House addressed the lack of choices for women in English Victorian society and the extent to which women’s abilities are constantly underestimated, The Body at the Tower focuses on the lack of options and upward mobility for London’s lower class, which Mary used to be a part of before being rescued from the hangman’s noose by the ladies of the Agency. And her role as Mark the commoner brings her back in contact with memories of the helplessness of circumstances of never being able to get ahead, not on money, food, or prospects, memories that clash with her last few years of middle-class prosperity:

“As a young pickpocket and later, a housebreaker, she had acquired her money in daily scraps and infrequent windfalls. What she didn’t spend was liable to be stolen from her in turn. And all the time, there was the need to keep her head down, keep her real identity a secret. It was an exhausting life, for she was constantly on the alert, always on the defensive. And except for the heady rush of danger that came with each theft, it was a lonely, joyless existence. It was perhaps understandable that when caught red-handed, she hadn’t felt her life worth saving. But Anne and Felicity had.”

A smaller yet significant part of Mary’s struggle in this book her feelings of not belonging in any place in society because she’s half-Chinese and grew up with almost zero exposure to anything about her father’s culture or language. Too foreign to be “truly” English but with no almost no personal connection to being Chinese, Mary’s sense of her own identity is constantly in flux, and it’s the choices she makes on the matter that mark the changes she goes through over the course of the story.

Unfortunately, The Body of the Tower had two major problems. The first is that the mystery was much sloppier this time around. The book opens with a one-page prologue from the point of view of the murderer, whose identity becomes incredibly obvious almost as soon as you first meet the character from Mary’s viewpoint. So you more-or-less start off the book knowing (or being pretty certain) of who the murderer is, if not why it happened, but that’s sloppily handled as well. The more Mary listens and talks to those around her, the more she hears about what seems like a conspiracy between three of the bricklayers, but then the majority of the story is spent trying to figure out the interpersonal dynamics of this supposed conspiracy and how it relates to the murder, and it just drags and drags.

And THEN there’s James Easton. Who I already firmly disliked in A Spy in the House and am now disgusted with after finishing The Body at the Tower. He’s still his arrogant, sardonic, rude self to Mary, but now with added pushing past and ignoring boundaries! Specifically, Easton runs into Mary on the street one afternoon while she’s uncharacteristically drunk, invites her into his carriage, and proceeds to kiss her, without any indication on her part of willingness or consent. NO THANK YOU.

Overall, The Body at the Tower was something of a disappointment for me. As historical fiction it’s lovely, but the mystery left a lot to be desired, and I am beyond done with having to read about the “romance” between Mary and James Easton. Meh. Maybe the next time when I get a fancy for YA historical fiction, I’ll pick up the next book.

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