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Review: Girl in Disguise, by Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks, 2017. 301 pp. $26

Kate Warne’s up against it. Chicago in 1856 is a rough town for a young widow with no money, no job prospects, and no desire to remarry. Mistreated by parents who never loved her, exploited her, and taught her never to love or trust anyone, Kate has learned to lie and dissemble, as circumstances seem to require. That skill, at least, she picked up from her father, a down-on-his-luck actor who, when not putting on stage makeup to perform, tried his hand at con games.

Alexander Gardner’s photo at Antietam, September 1862, of Allan Pinkerton (seated, right) and a woman believed to be Kate Warne, standing behind him. (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Which explains why, when Kate reads a want ad run by Allan Pinkerton looking for an operative to join his agency, she applies. After all, doesn’t she have the natural talent? Pinkerton nearly throws her out of his office; his profession is no place for a woman, he says. But Kate perseveres, of course, and Pinkerton reluctantly gives her a trial run — which doesn’t work out too well.

How that happens, and what she does about it, I’ll leave for you to find out, for Girl in Disguise is well worth your exploration. Be warned, however: Readers expecting a whodunit or thriller or even a unified plot will be disappointed, but, I expect, not for long. Such is the brio with which Macallister tells her story, and the loving attention she pays her protagonist, that it hardly matters.

Girl in Disguise is a coming-into-her-own novel, as Kate settles into her profession and masters it. Sometimes that process feels too easy, but rest assured, “no — and furthermore” resides here. The chapters represent cases, some of which are connected, especially in the narrative’s latter stages. But most stand alone, showing Kate’s progression, the professional and personal obstacles she faces, and, above all, how she handles a line of work that excites and fascinates her, yet leaves little or no room for a private life, let alone intimacy.

That, in turn, leads her toward self-discovery, because she must ask herself what she wants, and whether she’s lied so well to the world, she has fooled herself as well. As such, her character drives the narrative, an essential, given that the plot is episodic and fragmented. It’s an unusual way to approach a suspense novel, but here, it works.

Kate Warne was a real person, but little is known about her. Macallister does an impressive job re-creating her in plausible fashion. I particularly like the family history, which both brings out her character and influences the story line. Better yet, she lets Kate remain emotionally scarred. No miraculous transformations mar this book, for the author is too psychologically astute for that. The most exciting parts involve what few traces the real Kate Warne left in the historical record, and what tantalizing bits they are. She helped spirit Lincoln safely through Baltimore just before his first inauguration, foiling an assassination attempt. Later, during the Civil War, she performed surveillance on Rose Greenhow, a Washington socialite and clever Confederate spy.

Greenhow not only makes a worthy opponent, she comes across with particular vividness:

Artfully, she flirted, and I watched how she flirted. Her hands were deployed like soldiers to any front where they were needed: stroking a man’s sleeve to create intimacy, resting on the piano to reinforce her wealth, trailing along the side of her neck to draw attention to her body. She was not a young woman, but she was a beautiful one, no mistake. Her beauty alone was not all she had to offer. She gave off some kind of energy that drew men to her. Her gift, I saw, was attention. There was nothing more intoxicating to these men.

I wish Pinkerton’s characterization reached this level, but I don’t see his inner life or motivations as clearly as Kate’s or Greenhow’s. I wanted more from this major character. Lincoln’s cameo appearance provides just enough detail, I suppose, though I could have used a little more with him too, and George B. McClellan gets even shorter shrift, which I understand, yet which sets off my historian’s itch. During the war, McClellan would later command the Army of the Potomac and employ Pinkerton to run informants, who invariably offered inflated estimates of Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed them whole and used them as an excuse not to fight, driving Lincoln crazy. Maybe some other novelist will tackle that triangle.

The relative shallowness of the male characters is the most serious weakness of Girl in Disguise. With one exception, a suave, dapper colleague at Pinkerton’s agency who has a secret to protect, the men don’t measure up to Kate, Greenhow, or two women whom Kate trains as operatives.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Girl in Disguise, which richly imagines a complex tale based on a sketchy historical record.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.