Never Sleep: A Novel
- By Fred Van Lente
- Blackstone Publishing
- 350 pp.
- Reviewed by Anne Carrica
- April 26, 2023
A female P.I. tries to foil an assassination plot against Lincoln.
In Never Sleep, a fast-paced novel based on the real-life Baltimore Plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, author Fred Van Lente masterfully juggles multiple points of view and storylines while capturing the polarized America of 1861 and spotlighting the horrors of the antebellum South.
Baltimore is the only pro-slavery stop on Lincoln’s travel route to his inauguration in Washington, DC. A group of conspirators in the Maryland city intends to kill the incoming president and thus halt the possible abolition of slavery. Kate Warn and Hattie McLaughlin, the first female detectives in the United Sates, are tasked with ensuring Lincoln’s safe passage.
The narrative primarily alternates between Kate and Hattie, who both work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Kate is fresh off a failed assignment; money she was meant to recover was stolen by a group of night riders who then killed her partner. She couldn’t care less about politics — be it slavery or suffrage — because she’s worked too long in the art of deception to believe that those in power could want anything good. Instead, her focus is on creating an all-female branch of the agency.
She’s thrown into the world of politics, however, with this assignment. At first, Kate is ecstatic to learn that completing the mission successfully will allow her to form her beloved branch. That elation turns to dismay when she discovers her boss has already hired Kate’s first protégé, Hattie McLaughlin.
Hattie is Kate’s opposite in all the wrong ways. She’s young, inexperienced, altruistic, and (in Kate’s eyes) too pretty to pass by unnoticed as a spy. Hattie had applied to work as a receptionist at Pinkerton; she agreed to become an agent when she was told it would involve protecting the newly elected president.
The women have only a short train ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore to get acquainted, and for Kate to train Hattie in the basics of undercover work. They clash immediately when Hattie calls aiding Lincoln a “worthy crusade.”
“Ending slavery is not our job,” Kate retorts. “This world would be so much less miserable if everyone would just shut their mouths and do their jobs.” She manages to give Hattie a few pointers before the women part ways in Baltimore. Soon after, Kate begins to draft “The Lady Detective’s Primer” to help Hattie and the other female agents she hopes one day to train.
Kate stays in town and impersonates a dead woman from a past case named Flora. She rapidly befriends Anna Cain, Baltimore’s main socialite and wife of the police chief. To Kate, Anna is the kind of easy target she outlines in her primer: “needy, emotionally vulnerable types are the most exploitable.”
Anna’s husband is part of the National Volunteers, a group actively involved in the assassination plot; he refuses to let his wife attend any meetings because of Anna’s belief in women’s voting rights. Nonetheless, Kate convinces Anna to eavesdrop on the gatherings and report back what she learns about the plotters.
Meanwhile, Hattie is in Perrymansville, one town over from Baltimore. She starts off unsure and nervous; she feels alienated and alone. She knows Kate disapproves of her and wishes she could have learned more from the older woman prior to being sent out into the middle of nowhere. But she quickly finds her stride as an agent, managing to join the National Volunteer Women’s Auxiliary, which aids the National Volunteers and is supervised by the Prophet, the man spearheading the assassination plot.
At her first meeting, Hattie witnesses another member repeatedly beating a slave after the string on his fiddle breaks: “She missed once and got him on the side of the head, opening a crack in his skull and causing blood to ooze onto his nose.” Though horrified, Hattie maintains her cover, trying to telegraph her true feelings to the enslaved man: “I see you, and I am different from all these others. I will act.” She works tirelessly to unravel the plot and becomes the righthand woman to the increasingly violent Prophet.
In infiltrating the National Volunteers, Hattie comes to see there are truly evil people in the world and that her work as an agent gives her real power to effect change. Kate, for her part, through her interactions with President-elect Lincoln, begins to recognize the difference a single person with good intentions can make and opens herself up to getting involved with politics and trusting others.
Many of Kate’s strict rules in “The Lady Detective’s Primer” are broken, changed, and rewritten as her idea of what constitutes an effective agent — and her own mindset — evolves. By the end of the novel, both women realize the world and their roles in it aren’t what they initially envisioned, and that they have far more power than they once imagined.
Anne Carrica holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction from Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.