One-Minute Book Reviews

February 5, 2016

Female Spies in the Civil War — Beyond Notes in the Fruitcake

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When knitting with a Morse code–based pattern was women’s work

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. By Karen Abbott. HarperCollins, 513 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

A hoop skirt can hide a lot of secrets, not all of them sexual. Female spies for both the North and South made unique contributions to the Civil War by taking advantage of the voluminous clothing and other encumbrances of their sex, including the belief that they would pursue activities no riskier than rolling bandages or mending uniforms.

61r9btq72rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Karen Abbott tells the stories of four of these women and their accomplices, who operated mainly in Virginia and Washington, D.C, from 1861–1865. Their strategies included seducing enemy officers, knitting tapestries in a pattern based on Morse code, and arranging for the delivery of a fruitcake that had a secret letter baked into it instead of apples and raisins. One woman disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not surprisingly, she impersonated a female peddler with aplomb as she sneaked past Rebel lines in an attempt to gather facts for Gen. George McClellan about the strength of Confederate forces in Richmond.

These spies’ stories make for such lively reading that you wish you could believe every word of them. Abbott says that she hasn’t invented dialogue but has “extrapolated” her characters’ thoughts from sources such as their letters or diaries or others’ books. In other words, she’s guessed.

Abbott also makes the dubious assertion that her subjects were “the war’s unsung heroes.” That description certainly fits the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who used her Richmond mansion as a base for daring efforts to support the Union. To a lesser degree the label applies to Emma Edmondson, who masqueraded as a man in the 2d Michigan Infantry before she deserted. But what of the Confederate spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who spent their formidable energy and courage on an unjust cause? Even ardent feminists may have trouble finding an “unsung hero” in Greenhow, who wrote, while in Bermuda on her way to London on a mission for Jefferson Davis: “The negroes are lazy, vicious, and insubordinate.” It’s much easier to admire Van Lew, whose spy ring proved so effective that Ulysses Grant thanked her in a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Best line: Elizabeth Van Lew lent her servant Mary Jane Bowser to the wife of Jefferson Davis so that the Union would have a spy in the house of the Confederate president. When Mary Jane had gathered vital information, “she hung a red shirt on the laundry line” as a signal for Elizabeth to collect it. The book abounds with such memorable details.

Worst line: An echo of Seinfeld in a book about the Civil War: A Union soldier gave Belle Boyd a pistol that she “planned to regift to Stonewall Jackson.” Liar Temptress Soldier Spy also descends at times overwrought prose, such as: “All the breath rushed out of her and she felt turned inside out, whipped like laundry on a line.” Obviously, if all the breath “rushed out of her,” she couldn’t “feel turned inside out,” because she’d be dead.

About the author: Karen Abbott is a journalist who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

Second opinion: Jonathan Yardley reviewed Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for the Washington Post.

Published: 2014

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 30, 2009

‘Princeton Wouldn’t Engage in Corporate Espionage’ — James Rollins’s New Sigma Force Thriller, ‘The Doomsday Key’

Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, will be published on Sept. 15, 2009, but I’m not poring over the clues its publicists are scattering on the Twitter feed for the novel: I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code. So I’ve been looking into other thrillers about fraternal or ecclesiastical conspiracies, trying to answer the question, “Are any of these readable?” I found James Rollins’s new Sigma Force novel, The Doomsday Key (Morrow, 431 pp., $27), on a library display of New York Times bestsellers, and the dust-jacket copy said:

“At Princeton University, a famed geneticist dies inside a biohazard lab. In Rome, a Vatican archaeologist is found dead in St. Peter’s Basilica. In Africa, a U.S. Senator’s son is slain outside a Red Cross camp. The three murders on three continents bear a horrifying connection: all the victims are marked by a Druidic pagan cross burned into their flesh.

“The bizarre murders thrust Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force into a race against time to solve a riddle going back centuries, to a ghastly crime against humanity hidden within a cryptic medieval codex …”

This was not a promising beginning, so I’m sure whether I’ll read more of The Doomsday Key than I did of The Da Vinci Code. But here are a few quotes from the book that might help you decide whether it’s for you:

1. “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.”

2. “ ‘Great. So now we’re breaking into a prison and a tomb.’ Kowalski sank down and crossed his arms. ‘Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan.’”

3. “’Princeton wouldn’t engage in corporate espionage.’”

4. “Gray weighed that information. The Knights Templar were considered to be the keepers of many secrets. Could this be one of them?”

5. “‘The priest should have been more careful to whom he made his confession.’”

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May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0053354/; Don Sharp’s 1978 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0078389//

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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