BookBrowse Reviews Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

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Girl in Disguise

by Greer Macallister

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister X
Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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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.

When Kate Warne walked into the Pinkerton's Detective Agency in Chicago in 1856, she wasn't there to use their services, but rather to apply to become their first female detective. Kate knew that "someone has to be the first," and thankfully, Pinkerton agreed. Greer Macallister invents a rich fictional story, mixed with as many little known facts as possible, to create a thrilling tale of adventure, intrigue, mystery – and yes – even love.

To tell the truth, I don't usually read thrillers. However, I couldn't resist when I saw Macallister's name on Girl in Disguise, having so much enjoyed her debut, The Magician's Lie. Both in that book and in this one, she pulls her readers in immediately by presenting her main character in clear, bold strokes. In this novel, Macallister builds Kate Warne as a complex and relatable character, through fictionalizing her training and then taking us on her first cases (including some real ones), and Kate's first person voice enhances readers' connection to her life. It is obvious that the real Kate Warne was an exceptional woman, and her inclusion in the agency was not an easy road for her, especially the gender bias she faced. Altogether, this makes Warne into a three-dimensional character, filling in flawlessly with imagination, where the records and history books could never go.

In my opinion, The Magician's Lie fell slightly short in two areas. The first was the inclusion of magical realism that didn't feel appropriate to the overall story, and the other was her use of oddly poetic, somewhat dreamlike prose. There's no magical realism in Girl in Disguise and the balance of beautiful prose with both the hard truths of Kate's experiences and and her emotional journey turn the sketchy facts of a shadowy historical figure into a very realistic, living and breathing person.

But none of this would have succeeded if Macallister hadn't also written the action in such a compelling way, which is due to the impeccable pacing that she employs. She breezes through Warne's training and first cases, while pausing just long enough to focus on the first one that almost stopped her progress. Then she slides into a personal mode to give us more of Warne's personality, while still including some of her other cases. As enjoyable as all that is, the real fun begins with her part in keeping President-Elect Abraham Lincoln alive long enough for his inauguration, and her subsequent work as a spy for the Union in the Civil War. The rollercoaster ride that follows creates a classic page-turner with as many twists and turns as humanly possible, without ever exhausting us. All the while, Macallister continues to build Warne up and flesh her out as a character so that we increasingly empathize with her and cheer her on, both personally and professionally. The only plot point that didn't sit completely right with me was Pinkerton's hesitation to send Warne out as a spy for the war. It isn't as if she would have been the first female war spy, and the excuse that he didn't want to lose her as an agent felt shallow.

Despite this tiny niggle, this is precisely the type of novel to read if you want to get your pulse racing. However, that isn't the only reason to read this book, because it also reminds us that America has a rich history filled with remarkable women. While some of these women worked for the greater good as champions of many worthy causes, others were outstanding by virtue of their struggle to succeed as individuals and professionals on their own merits in a man's world. What a pleasure to learn about one such woman, especially one we know so little about, through Macallister's eloquence and artistry!

Reviewed by Davida Chazan

This review was originally published in March 2017, and has been updated for the March 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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