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The Finest in Crime and Suspense Short Fiction

Booked & Printed

by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

In brutally divided, patriarchal nations, women might seem perpetually second-class citizens, doomed to subjugation and obedience. Yet even in the most oppressive environments, women have exercised strategy at best, or complicity at worse. Whether or not the past acknowledges them, women have exercised the full human range of struggle and choice in the most dangerously man-made conflicts. Whether working in the service of survival, justice, crime-solving, or even terrible ideologies, women’s roles during deep battles have important places in historical narratives. This month, Booked and Printed examines women protagonists—and antagonists—who fight to express their full, flawed agency in historical contexts built to suppress their power. With characters based on real-life figures, each mystery offers an important window into inner lives once overlooked by history.

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 At a violently tense time in the United States, a group of specialized federal investigators gather outside a wealthy woman’s home. In Megan Campisi’s The Widow Spy, it is 1861, at the height of the Civil War, and Agent Kate Warne and her team of fellow agents face off with Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a respected, popular widow and a suspected spy for the Confederacy. Warne is a rare woman agent, an elite Pinkerton investigator working on behalf of Abraham Lincoln to disrupt the South’s espionage.

The Widow Spy’s plot takes off like a shot. When Greenhow sees agents at her doorstep, she attempts to eat a piece of paper with a coded message. The agents struggle to physically open her mouth, salvage the message, and somehow find the cipher for the code in her vast household, all while keeping Greenhow’s house arrest a secret from her Confederate network. As the sole woman agent at the site, Warne has a special task. In relating to Greenhow, her household staff, and Greenhow’s young daughter, Warne is assigned to break open the secrets of the Civil War. She must be aware of many practices at once. She must mask her own personal history, play up her “lowborn” status in a classist American home, and calculate how to use Greenhow’s vulnerabilities—perhaps even her nine-year-old daughter—against her.

One of the great pleasures of Campisi’s novel is the inner depth she lends to each character. Warne spars with Greenhow intellectually and psychologically. Greenhow is an upper-class member of an old money family. She is an inveterate supporter of slavery, and she suffers from deep grief over the loss of her husband and elder daughter. Warne’s observations and heart as narrator remind us of the networks of complicity and ideology that keep the evil practices of slavery and segregation alive. Warne is a self-made, self-renamed immigrant whose parents died in Ireland during a horrific famine; she simmers with intelligence and justifiable rage. Each character’s personal lives and psyches are thoroughly shaped by vivid historical events of the 1800s.

With the novel’s heart-rending depictions of Warne having survived the Irish famine and joined a sweatshop to survive her teenaged years in America, readers will come to understand how memories of immigrant suffering might lead to deep solidarities with the abolitionist movement. The novel describes love, struggle, and spying across racial divides. Allan Pinkerton is an especially memorable, short-tempered mentor. Even as a macho law enforcement officer (and before his agency became known, in its later years, for its brutal union busting), Pinkerton had the canny wherewithal to hire women spies. He knew their importance to the war effort. Women agents had the special ability to cross battle-worn boundaries, and into the overlooked world of domestic work.

Warne was a real historical figure, lauded as the first known woman detective in the country. Pinkerton and Greenhow were real, too, along with many other characters in The Widow Spy. Campisi has crafted an important and propulsive historical novel, one that brings the inner lives of Civil War women resonating into our embattled American present.

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In ancient, BC Egypt, Princess Neferura struggles to occupy her rightful place. Her mother, Pharaoh Hatshepsut, is an aging ruler with little warmth as a parent. Her resentful half brother, Thutmose, grows more militaristic and power hungry by the day. Pharaoh and son circle each other, trading barbs, to Neferura’s rising dismay. But when Thutmose appears at court with dynasty-threatening accusations, Nefereru’s everyday circumstances grow ever more dire.

In Malayna Evans’s novel Neferura, several mysteries unfold within palace walls and throughout a fascinating cross section of Egyptian society. Neferura is the land’s highest priestess, but as she faces down threats from her innermost family, she must live with the consequences of an impossibly brutal bargain between her mother and her brother.

While she struggles through the halls of competing royal decrees, Neferura pursues the truth to several hidden secrets. Her upbringing, her lineage, and the truth of her family’s choices are all at stake, including her own chance at survival. Neferura cultivates unexpected allies who secretly populate the palace, and she discovers a society of free-moving women who obey an order and a power all their own. As intrigues grow, allies and foes grow murkier to discern, and Neferura must decide who to trust and who to fight.

Evans is a historian with a PhD in Egyptian history, and she brings her training to rich life in the book through striking details. The delicious materiality of royal meals is as vivid as the river Neferura crosses for her daily temple rituals. Readers can visualize the ancient scrolls passed back and forth as palace intrigues propagate, and royal tombs under construction rise upon the pages.

Neferura, Hatshepsut, and Thutmose were all true historical figures as well. Evans’s novel is a rich, well-informed imagining of the inner life of a princess steeped in monarchy and tradition, facing down royal perils. Neferura offers a historical vision of hidden, active female powers, exercised in solidarity and necessity.

Copyright © 2024 Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

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