We all love books about queens and iconic artists, but historical fiction can also uncover the untold stories of history—from lady detectives to aspiring bohemians to scandalous beauty queens. Here are three novels about the stories you didn’t learn in school.
Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective, is a legend of American law enforcement. Greer Macallister’s vastly entertaining novel Girl in Disguise brings this feminist pioneer to life in all her skill and complexity. Kate is a perceptive and determined character, and being inside her head while she makes deductions and analyzes her targets is an enormous amount of fun. Even more enjoyable is the way Kate wrangles her new detective colleagues, most of whom are varying degrees of sexist and some of whom have surprising hidden depths.
Macallister wrings a great deal of tension out of the various setups and traps the Pinkerton detectives use to ferret out crime and sedition, at times simply by adhering to the restrictions of the detective work of the period. The story is episodic at first, allowing the reader and Kate to bounce from case to case while Macallister fleshes out the world of pre-Civil War America and expertly darkens the mood of the book.
Once war breaks out, Kate and her colleagues are devoted to the Union war effort and Macallister’s carefully laid groundwork pays off. The shift from hunting down criminals to facing off against Confederate spies (one of whom is a clever mirror image of Kate herself) raises the stakes of the book and forces Kate into closer quarters with her colleagues and boss, setting up the characters for a satisfying series of confrontations. Long-simmering quarrels come to a head and an unexpected romance blooms that is both touching and maturely sexy.
Steeped in the details of the period, Girl in Disguise is an entertaining ride as well as an homage to a brilliant woman who found and seized her chance at a life full of adventure and purpose.
The inspiration for Edvard Munch’s The Scream is often said to be the artist’s own existential angst and possible mental illness. In The Girl Between, Lisa Strømme gives the painting a more personal origin story—a passionate love affair between the painter and Tullik, a vacationing admiral’s daughter, seen through the eyes of Johanne, Tullik’s young maid.
The strength of Strømme’s novel is her awareness that having Johanne serve as only narrator would be a missed opportunity. The Girl Between is nominally the story of a love affair between two people, but truly the story of an emotional affair between three people. Johanne, who has grown up in the seaside town where Edvard lives and Tullik visits, is an aspiring artist herself as well as a girl just starting to question the boundaries and mores of her conservative upbringing. Johanne’s own artistic talent and burgeoning sense of her own desires color the entire novel, bursting forth in impressionistic passages that connect her emotions and sensations to the art she creates. Her vivid senses of the world around her, brought to startling life by Strømme’s prose throughout the novel, make the passages of impressionistic fancy even more surreal. In The Girl Between, the boundary between the everyday world and the world of art and iconography is porous, with emotion, inspiration and passion constantly flowing from one character to another.
Tullik is an especially fascinating figure as she is painfully aware of the limitations imposed on her because of her wealth and gender. She regresses into a childlike state as often as she attempts to be a bohemian firebrand. Because she is only ever viewed through Johanne’s eyes, it is unclear whether the fascination she provokes in others is entirely unconscious or carefully cultivated, whether her seduction of Edvard is a genuine meeting of souls or a frantic grasp for freedom. Strømme does not hesitate to show how Tullik and Edvard use their privilege to purse their own ends—Tullik with her wealth and control over Johanne, and Edvard with his ability as a man to walk away unscathed by the repercussions of his affairs. Johanne may pity and often idealize the lovers, but Strømme allows the reader to decide for themselves whether The Girl Between is a tragedy of two lovers, or the origin story of a woman who found herself in the wreckage they left behind.
THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN
In the history of the Miss America pageant, there has in fact been one winner who rejected the position. Her name was Betty Cooper, and she disappeared for 24 hours after winning the title in 1937. Michael Callahan uses her story as a template for The Night She Won Miss America, set in 1950 and centered on reluctant Miss Delaware Betty Welch, who only enters the competition to please her mother. Once in Atlantic City for the final days of competition, Betty find herself more interested in her dashing escort Griff than vying for the crown. But Griff isn’t exactly the picture-perfect suitor Betty thinks he is.
Callahan masterfully creates the sparkling world of Atlantic City in the 50s, draped in the post-war glamour of the Miss America pageant. From the lingo to the elaborate wardrobes of the contestants to the nightclubs and cocktails they frequent, his infectious enthusiasm for the period enlivens every page. Thankfully, he doesn’t rely solely on the delicious window dressing and provides the reader with two well-drawn main narrators—the innocent but self-possessed and intelligent Betty, and her more world-wise roommate Ciji.
Betty is a keen, dubious observer of the pageant, whose increasing success in the competition mainly comes from her refusal to play the part of ambitious beauty queen. But when she meets and falls madly in love with Griffin McAllister, her good sense wars with her powerful attraction to her escort. Callahan does a superb job at evoking the sweep and rush of first love, while at the same time undercutting the fantasy as Betty’s skeptical nature refuses to allow her to fully relax into Griff’s affections.
Ciji, who only entered the pageant because she sees it as a stepping-stone to Hollywood, takes over sections of the narrative once the pageant is over and the strain of the real world sets in. A beauty queen with the cynicism of Humphrey Bogart, Ciji moves through the world with the ever-present knowledge that her good looks are a useful tool (up to a point). As Betty and Griff’s relationship darkens, Ciji finds herself torn between helping her friend and acting in her own best interests.
The drama that unfolds is like one of the movies Ciji hopes to star in. Callahan nimbly guides the reader from the rounds of the Miss America competition to Times Square to a climax on a seaside cliff during a masquerade ball. The Night She Won Miss America is a delightfully dramatic and fast-paced summer read, with just the right amount of darkness to balance out the fluff.