Book Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

Girl in Disguise
Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-4926-3522-2
Hardcover

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?

Kate Warne really was the first female detective with the Pinkerton Agency, a woman far ahead of her time and with prodigious abilities; you can read more about her here. Ms. Macallister now offers a fictional account of this endlessly fascinating woman and brings Kate to life for us.

Kate’s adventures don’t seem all that exciting, on the surface, until you remind yourself she was a 23-year-old female doing a traditionally man’s job in 1856. To say she had to overcome some gender-based obstacles would be an understatement but she proved her worth and validated Allan Pinkerton’s decision to give her a chance. In effect, Kate broke the glass ceiling for all the women detectives who followed her.

The reader looking for a typical mystery won’t find it here because there’s no particular case to be solved. Rather, this is a lively recounting of a private detective’s adventures, made more interesting by the times and the excitement of being a Pinkerton.

The fun of this book lies in all the detective stuff we fell in love with as children—codes, deception, disguises and general shenanigans along with derring-do—and the tale is told by Kate herself, giving it a taste of reality as it existed in the mid-nineteenth century, especially during the Civil War. Ms. Macallister doesn’t fill the pages with thrills and chills but, considering how little is known about this captivating woman, she gives Kate a real presence.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

Book Depository // Indiebound 

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An Excerpt from Girl in Disguise

THE FIRST DISGUISE

August 1856

Like any Chicago tavern in deep summer, Joe Mulligan’s stank. It stank of cigars smoked the week before, months before, years before. Tonight’s smoke pooled against the basement ceiling in a noxious cloud. I acted like I smelled only roses. The woman I was pretending to be would have done the same.

I was also pretending the sharp tang of men’s sweat surrounding me didn’t terrify me. These were not good men. But I wasn’t a good woman, not tonight. My mission was to ignore the smoke and the sweat, blind a bad man with a wicked smile, and wring out his secrets. There would be no second chance.

So I breathed as shallowly as I could and made my way through the crowd to the bar. Men’s bodies brushed mine, hips and hands and God only knows what, lingering on my shoulder and every- where below. My nerves frayed, and I stumbled. With anything less at stake, I would have fled Joe Mulligan’s as if it were on fire. But I needed the money. The money would save me.

“Drink?” snapped the barkeep.

I squared my shoulders and answered him as the woman I was pretending to be.

“Well, I sure am thirsty,” I said, lowering my head as if sharing a confidence, “but I’m waiting on a friend.”

Empty glass in hand, he looked me over. The low-sweeping neckline of my claret silk gown and the pale expanse of décolletage it artfully framed. The intricately curled hair piled atop my head, shot through with ribbons. The coy smile, all lips, no teeth. I saw recognition flash in his eyes.

“Do your business, but don’t make no trouble,” he said and moved on down the bar to a knot of raucous, rowdy men. The first gate, passed. Now, I was just waiting.

And waiting.

At least thirty long minutes crawled by, and with each one, my relief drained away. The same disguise that had fooled the bartender fooled the patrons. Man after man took turns perching on the red leather stool next to me. They bent close. Their mouths offered drinks and conversation, but their eyes made it clear what they really wanted.

I hadn’t expected to be the only woman in the place. This late at night, the slatterns of Chicago did a brisk business in establishments like Joe Mulligan’s, which is why I’d chosen this place and time. I’d known how it would look and what they would think. But the practice was turning out to be much harder than the theory. Every man had to be skillfully parried away. A single slip would waste the night. The effort exhausted me.

“Oh, sir,” I was saying to the latest one, fluttering my fingers at him, “you do me a kindness. But I really must insist you leave that seat free for my companion.”

He leaned closer, breathing almost into my mouth, and slurred, “I’ll be your companion, sugar.”

I swallowed my disgust and kept my voice steady. Be pleasant, I told myself. Cheerful. Bland. “He’ll be here any minute, I’m certain of it,” I said and gazed over his shoulder hopefully. As if in answer, the door to the outside creaked open.

Rumbles of laughter sounded as half a dozen men guffawed their way down the stairs into the tavern. I recognized my target immediately. He wasn’t the tallest of them, nor the most handsome, but it was clear he was in charge. His smirk showed he was the one who’d told the joke everyone was laughing at.

Henry Venable, better known as Heck, was a sallow man with deep-set, hooded eyes. He wore a hat worn soft with age. The rest of his clothes were so new they practically gleamed. If I were closer, I’d be able to see my reflection in his shoes. He looked, unmistakably, like he’d recently come into money. Which the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the First Eagle Savings Bank believed he had, several weeks before, with the help of three accomplices and four shotguns. Eyewitnesses had given a description that matched Heck’s, but it wasn’t enough. The best way to prove he’d done it was to find the money. He’d spent some of it, clearly, but rare was the man who could spend five thousand dollars in less than a month without leaving some kind of trail. The rest had to be hidden somewhere.

I had to find out where.

Easy, easy, I told myself. I couldn’t shove my way over to him right off the bat. I had to get him to come to me. Somehow.

Still laughing and jostling one another, the six men took their seats at a booth in the corner, much farther away than I would’ve liked. I was too far off to catch his eye, and it would look odd if I changed my seat for no reason. Given that, I sidled down the bar and forced myself to slide onto an empty stool next to a stoop- shouldered man. I sat much closer to him than I needed to and dangled one foot close to his.

“Evening,” I said.

He glared at me through bleary eyes, clearly three sheets to the wind already, maybe four. Well, that wasn’t all bad. He couldn’t cause me trouble if he slipped out of consciousness. I hoped.

“Evening,” he slurred, barely able to manage even the two required syllables.

“What’re you drinking? Looks delicious. I sure could use a drink myself,” I said and gestured to the empty bar in front of me.

He managed to raise two fingers to the bartender, who came right away—clearly, this was a regular—and said, “’Nother round, Jim.”

“Coming right up.”

I edged even closer to him and peeked over my shoulder as discreetly as I could toward Heck and his men. All seated, and some looked restless. Good. There were still possibilities.

My ever-drunker neighbor half raised his glass of bourbon to me. I took a sip and nearly choked. It took all my concentration not to gasp at the burning, searing sensation. I’d have to get better at that. Any man in possession of his faculties could easily see I wasn’t used to strong drink. Tonight, this one’s faculties were thoroughly drowned, but that was luck on my part, not skill. If I made it through this night, I’d put it on my list of things to learn.

Finally, one of Heck’s men eased out of the booth. As I’d hoped, he came toward the bar, into the larger-than-usual space on my far side. He flagged down the bartender and rattled off a complicated order. As soon as he was done and his elbow was resting on the bar next to me, I ignored my marinated neighbor, as I’d planned, and leaned over toward him, my décolletage almost spilling out onto his arm.

“Evening,” I said.

He nodded back silently. He was a striking man, with blue eyes like ice under his thick black brows, but there was something cruel about his face. Something cold. Locked away.

I’d have to generate enough warmth for both of us. “Say,” I nearly purred, inclining my head toward the booth, “would you mind introducing me to your friends there?”

“Yes, I’d mind very much,” he said, turned square toward the bar, and then ignored me as if someone were paying him a goodly sum to do so.

Damn it. The wrong target, I supposed, but what was I to do? I was beginning to panic in earnest. Heck was only ten feet away from me, but he might as well be ten miles if I couldn’t get myself into his orbit. I had it all planned out. Delicate fingers laid on his arm. Breathless, admiring questions. He was known as a boaster with an eye, and other parts, for the ladies. If I was in the right place at the right time—which I was so, so close to being—I could get him to boast to me. Then I’d have what Pinkerton wanted, and in turn, he’d give me what I wanted: a position as the first female operative of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, at full salary.

But it all depended on Heck, and to get to him, I had to get through this man-shaped woodcut first. And all he was doing was staring at the barkeep, waiting.

We stayed like that a few minutes. My brain worked madly, thoughts zooming and swooping around my skull, but I had no good ideas. It could all fall apart this easily. Damn it. Damn it. The drunk on my other side finally laid his head down on the bar; he’d be no help.

At last, another man rose from the booth and joined Blue Eyes, standing close to both of us. His hair was drenched with brillian- tine, and his small, sad mustache was little more than a pencil line above his lip. “Boss wants to know what’s taking so long.”

“See for yourself,” said the taller one, inclining his head in the direction of the culprit, who was hard at work pouring coppery brown liquid out of a silver shaker into six matching coupes. “Ragman’s taking his sweet time.”

The new arrival inclined his head toward me. “Looks to me like you’re caught up in conversation.”

“Heavens no,” I said, pivoting my body toward  his.  “This clod couldn’t make conversation if I spotted him both ends of the sentence. Are you more of a…talker?”

“I could be,” he said with a wolf’s leer.

“Then perhaps I might join your party?” I smiled, but not too wide. Softly, sweetly. Let him think me a sheep.

“Sounds good to me,” he said. “No,” said the first man.

“You’re no fun,” said the second.

“That may be,” said Blue Eyes. “But no need for the boss to get distracted. There’s business to be done.”

“Aw, plenty of time for business when the sun rises,” Mustache replied. “Tonight, I think he’s more in the mood to celebrate, if you catch my drift.”

“I like to celebrate,” I said.

“I bet you do,” both men said in unison, with very different inflections.

With much clattering and fanfare, the bartender finally poured the sixth drink and pushed the glasses across the bar. Mustache immediately grabbed one in each hand. The elegant stems looked especially fragile in his fists. He carried them over to the table, where his arrival was greeted with appreciative hoots.

I assumed Blue Eyes would follow, but instead, he grabbed my elbow sharply and growled in my ear, “What are you playing at?”

“What?”

“Walk away,” he said. “Right now. Walk away.” “No,” I hissed, but my heart pounded.

“All right, then. Come with me.” “I’ll scream,” I said.

“You do that,” he said, cool as the far side of the pillow.

He was right. A scream would call attention my way, but what for? What man among these would rush to my side? I scanned their faces. Heck Venable and his crew were hardly the only wrongdoers here, and some were doubtless worse than mere robbers. First Eagle had been knocked over with no fatalities. There were things far worse than money to steal. I was likely better off taking my chances with Blue Eyes, as poor a prospect as that seemed.

Mustache returned for the rest of the drinks. “You helping?” he asked, clearly confused.

“Naw, you take ’em. I’ll be back in two shakes,” said the taller man, shifting his grip on my elbow around to the inside, so it looked less overtly threatening. His long, rough fingers moved over the delicate skin on my inner arm, and I couldn’t suppress a shiver.

“Oh, I see,” leered Mustache.

Annoyance crossed his face, but Blue Eyes said, “Don’t drink mine. I won’t be long.”

“Sure.”

I wished I could think of something to say to Mustache that would result in him getting me away from Blue Eyes, but my mind was a blank. I never should have taken such a risk. Never should have come here. I didn’t even protest as the taller man hauled me to my feet.

“This way,” he said, steering me up the stairs. I dragged my feet as much as I dared, and a new wave of terror swept over me. Upstairs was the hotel. That was a key reason Joe Mulligan’s was particularly popular with the whores of Chicago: convenience.

His hand was locked around my arm like an iron cuff. He didn’t relax his grip at all, even while using his other hand to unlock the door of a room that I assumed to be his. My throat was dry, and my head swam. Damn it, damn it. I’d disguised myself as a prostitute to crack the case, believing it the best, if not the only, way to achieve my aim. Now, unless a miracle happened, I’d have to choose between certain exposure and an unthinkable act. Blue Eyes was clearly expecting me to follow through on my disguise. Unless I wanted to give up all hope of ever gaining the confidence of Heck Venable and prying loose his secrets, I’d have to deliver on my unspoken promise and do what prostitutes do.

With one more tug, he pulled me inside the room and shut the door.

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About the Author

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Social Media Links:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/theladygreer

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theladygreer/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greermacallister/

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“an exciting, well-crafted historical novel. Loaded with
suspense and action, this is a well-told, superb story.”
 Publishers Weekly, STARRED 

“Macallister’s story is a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to
read, with compelling characters, twisted villains, and
mounds of historical details adeptly woven into the tale
of a courageous woman who loves her job more than
anything or anyone else.” – Booklist

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