Never Sleep

Written by Fred Van Lente
Review by Jackie Drohan

Never Sleep is a solid historical fiction offering by well-known graphic novelist and fiction writer Van Lente. Opening in 1861, it follows Kate Warn, the first female criminal detective hired by Allan Pinkerton, founder of the National Police Agency. Kate and her young protégé, Hattie MacLaughlin, are tasked to root out assassination plots in the South during an era in which federal enforcement and public service protection for Presidents was all but nonexistent. In this rich character study, Pinkerton himself is one of the most vibrant characters, bringing his Scottish empiricism and skepticism to a profession sorely in need of it.

The tenacious, often unscrupulous Kate is tasked to infiltrate the secessionist circles of the Baltimore female gentry, posing as a displaced Southern wife whose husband has been wrongly imprisoned by the Northern legal system. Hattie is given a similar assignment among working-class political organizations. The women’s unchallenged social access and keen detective instincts serve them well and glean far more timely intelligence than do their male counterparts. Colorful actors with often obscure motives populate the narrative, such as the blind but terrifyingly violent “Prophet—,” a pro-slavery answer to the North’s John Brown; and Lieutenant Hill, a Union officer seemingly willing to compromise his allegiance for monetary gain, and one of Kate’s love interests.

The story’s principal conflicts, beyond the obvious North/South divide, include the disparate motives of the Southern gentry versus the lower classes, both opposing Lincoln and supporting the slave system for their own reasons. There is also conflict between Kate and Hattie, fueled by Kate’s rightful fear of being supplanted by the greater talents and youthful beauty of her mentee. Lincoln is difficult to render without cliché, but the novel manages it with grace. The style is breezy and accessible, with some engaging plot twists despite the outcome’s historic predictability. Recommended.