This exhaustively researched historical fiction examines Civil War–era spies and geopolitics.
Hamit’s (Shenandoah Spy, 2008) second novel focuses on the life and career of Mrs. Rose Greenhow, a rich 19th-century widow whose services as a spy may have gone beyond her years of work for the Confederacy—she may have also been in the pay of British and French intelligence. The story provides impressive period atmosphere and painstakingly researched details of Greenhow’s life in the 1850s and ’60s, as she exerts an invisible influence over the Mexican War and then builds a mostly female spy ring for the South. Some consideration is given to her marriage and personal life, though it’s generally overshadowed by the larger business to which she’s dedicated. Hamit steers clear of larger-than-life historical figures in his invention, making better use of famed detective/spy Allan Pinkerton and his agency. This is fitting, as the book maintains a sense of grave seriousness and devotion to truth, which the random appearances of colorful characters would diminish. Even the opening pages include a grim prison photograph of the real Mrs. Greenhow and her young daughter, cementing the truth-in-fiction tone. Along with the author’s first novel, the story of Rose Greenhow is meant to be part of a massive “super-novel” that will amount to a broad portrait of the era. The text’s conclusion accounts for the arrangement, but it’s also distracting. There’s a sense that this is only a chapter taken out of another story, as if some of the super-novel’s energy is held in reserve for other volumes. The skulduggery is scrupulously realistic, yet as a result, it can sometimes lack verve. Poetic license is exercised but always with the greatest economy.
Historical cloak-and-dagger with only a quiet spark.