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Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

BOTTOM LINE: Girls rule!

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 21 March 2017
Source: Publisher

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Inspired by the real story of investigator Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective’s rise during one of the nation’s times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

With no money and no husband, Kate Warne finds herself with few choices. The streets of 1856 Chicago offer a desperate widow mostly trouble and ruin—unless that widow has a knack for manipulation and an unusually quick mind. In a bold move that no other woman has tried, Kate convinces the legendary Allan Pinkerton to hire her as a detective.

Battling criminals and coworkers alike, Kate immerses herself in the dangerous life of an operative, winning the right to tackle some of the agency’s toughest investigations. But is the woman she’s becoming—capable of any and all lies, swapping identities like dresses—the true Kate? Or has the real disguise been the good girl she always thought she was?”

My Thoughts: When one thinks of the famous Pinkerton detectives, one imagines nondescript but serious men, intent upon their mission, able to blend into any background, and devoted to justice. I always imagine them as the human equivalent of bloodhounds. In Girl in Disguise, Greer Macallister puts faces to the nameless detectives but also introduces someone much more interesting, the first female Pinkerton detective.

Joining the agency during a time when women, especially gentile women, did not work, Kate Warne must prove herself to her fellow agents. The distrust and animosity she faces is by no means surprising and not unlike the opposition women still face when entering what has been traditionally deemed a male career. Through her trials and early cases, not only do we get to imagine the difficulties she faced, but we also get a picture of the work the Pinkertons actually did and their methods for solving their cases. It is fascinating information for anyone with any interest in detective work.

Having not read Ms. Macallister’s first novel, I have no idea of knowing whether this is her writing style or not, but the writing in Girl in Disguise is clunky. The descriptions are effective but less than elegant, and the character development, while minimal, is anything but subtle. To make matters worse, the story, especially in the beginning, has no apparent plot but jumps from vignette to vignette. One gets the distinct impression that the novel is nothing more than reminiscences because there is no seamless transition from one scene to another. It is only upon the dawning of the Civil War where the story smooths into something with a distinct plot and genuine conflict.

Yet, in spite of all of that, Kate is an appealing character and one that captures your interest regardless of the writing style. She is a take-no-prisoners type of gal, and her devotion to her craft is extraordinary. While one never feels any danger on her behalf, her exploits are nevertheless thrilling and suspenseful. After the first few cases, the lack of fluidity between her stories matters not a whit as you are thoroughly engrossed in her work. Moreover, the few scenes where she is deep undercover provides a compelling glimpse into the psychology of such work and even greater insight into the work of the famous Pinkertons.

Given the dearth of resources regarding this remarkable woman, Ms. Macallister does a tremendous job gleaning as much as she can from the few sources available to her and balancing that with the fictional filler. Even if half of what the story says is true, there is no doubt that Kate Warne was a remarkable woman who was not afraid to break the severest of gender boundaries. Immensely readable and highly enjoyable Girl in Disguise makes you proud to be a woman and confirms the fact that we can indeed do anything we want.

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