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Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Pub. Date: March 21, 2017
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Sourcebooks!)
Summary: For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.

In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.

Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can’t. She’s a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she’s been assigned to nab.

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

If there’s one genre I can safely say I absolutely adore, it’s historical fiction. And if there’s one sub-genre of historical fiction that positively sings to me, it’s novels based on actual people. Girl in Disguise takes the very real Kate Warne and sheds new light on a little-known, but seriously badass woman.

Having responded to a newspaper ad placed by Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Kate is nearly shown the door. A woman interested in the rough and tumble life of a detective? Surely not! But she stands her ground, finally conceding to a trial run: Pinkerton will give her a case and if she’s able to solve it, she’ll be hired on (and become America’s first female detective in doing so). If she’s unable to solve the case, that’s it. She’ll walk away without another word.

So what does Kate do? Naturally she solves the case. If only life among her fellow Pinkertons could be as easy. Sabotaged on a case shortly after being hired on, Kate is sure one of her colleges had something to do with it. These are men who fiercely believe a woman’s place is in the house minding the children, that the horrors of witnessing crimes up close and getting mixed in with seedy criminal lowlifes just isn’t something a delicate female can handle. One of the best things about Girl in Disguise is how resolutely Kate stomps all over these notions – antiquated even in the 1850s – and shows these agents how it’s really done.

Something I noticed while reading was how, rather than being plotted like a mystery series that follows one case per book, Girl in Disguise essentially reads as a fictionalized biography. A sharper focus on one particular case or aspect of Kate’s career might have allowed readers a chance to breathe and really get to know the characters; the bouncy, rapid-fire pace detailing over a decade of her career could potentially have a slightly jarring effect on readers who are used to a more pointed, direct style.

Personally? I loved Girl in Disguise. With so little known about the real life Kate Warne, Macallister basically had free reign to do as she pleased with the woman’s life. In a lesser author’s hands, Kate could have boiled down to a caricature. Here, however, she came across as a wholly believable character with faults and talents to her name and it’s how she handled both that made her jump off the page. Back in 2013 I read the nonfiction biography Pinkerton’s Great Detective about the life of James McParland, a detective whose cases served as inspiration behind several Sherlock Holmes novels! Despite Girl in Disguise being a work of fiction, it’s clear the Pinkertons were an absolutely fascinating bunch. With now two novels under her belt, Greer Macallister has become an author to watch – I know I certainly will and cannot wait to see what she does next!

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