This novel is told from the point of view of Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, who became the backbone of Lincoln’s Civil War intelligence operations. His relationship with Kate Warne, the first female detective in the US, forms the spicy focus—if focus there be.
This is a very disappointing book, especially from an author we are told comes off a twenty-year career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. No scene comes to life with any sort of cinematographic clarity. Dialogue is dead and only appears after we get but a cursory outline of what might have been dramatic exchanges. All the famous Pinkerton scenes—including him pursuing his man away from Rose Greenhow’s window in stocking feet—are crammed in such a few pages that we feel or see none. We are told, almost never shown. The scenes are rarely connected and do not build tension. Every name of every coworker detective appears, all the period’s great personalities including John Brown, parade through, but none (including John Brown) comes to life as a character.
An important skill in historical novel writing with real characters is to keep them ignorant of what is to happen, although the history books tell us. Lerner’s Pinkerton never wrestles with anything unexpected. Any well-written biography of Pinkerton would do better—except for the lurid sex. This Pinkerton also has a needlessly—and often too-modern—foul mouth interspersed with jarring effect between passages of the elevated style the old Victorian might have written himself. Beauregard’s in a “snit”? Pinkerton’s eldest calls his younger brother “you jerk” in a “snotty” tone? The famous detective comes off as a thoroughly despicable man—which he might well have been—but we would rather not spend much time with such a one without fictional plastic surgery.