The Ministry of Unladylike Activity (The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, 1)

Written by Robin Stevens
Review by Rebecca Butler

This is the first in a new series starring May Wong as the protagonist. Regular readers of Stevens will recognise May as the younger sister of Hazel Wong from the Murder Most Unladylike series. For fans of Daisy and Hazel, they also make an appearance. This novel can be read as a stand-alone, but it would be helpful to have some knowledge of the previous series.

It is 1940. May Wong is supposed to be at Deepdean School which she hates. She accidentally discovers the existence of the Ministry of Unladylike Activities and having been rejected as too young to spy, she determines to defy the rules and be sent as an evacuee to a grand country mansion, Elysium Hall. At Elysium, a member of the Verey family is suspected of spying for the Germans. Can May discover who is the spy and what else will she discover along the way? Yes, there is murder involved.

In Stevens’ usual style, this book is meticulously plotted and covers many unusual issues, chiefly the strong anti-Irish sentiment which existed in England during World War Two. This has been covered by Irish writers for young people but, to my knowledge, never by a British author. Also, mild spoiler, a child character dies in the November 1940 air raid on Coventry. It was brave and right that Stevens refused to shy away from the fact that many children died.

My one criticism of this narrative is that it is very long for its intended middle grade readership. Some weaker readers may struggle with the length – just under 400 pages. The length is understandable because of the tight plotting and the placement of clues, but some may still be daunted.