Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)
Bestselling nonfiction writer Stewart (The Drunken Botanist) hits all the high notes in her fiction debut, Girl Waits with Gun. She gives us a meticulously researched historical setting (the factory district of New Jersey in 1914), a trio of gloriously unconventional and independent female protagonists, a tone that effortlessly ranges from wry humor to suspense to drama, and a first-person narrative voice that vividly evokes a personality and a period. What more could you want? If you’re wise, you’ll stop reading this review right now and go track down a copy.
But if you need more convincing, I’ll tell you that the premise — sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp, after their horse-drawn buggy is wantonly destroyed by factory-owner-cum-thug Henry Kaufman’s automobile, find themselves unlikely assistants in the local sheriff’s crime-fighting efforts against Kaufman and his gang — is not only brilliant, but absolutely true. Kaufman and the Kopps really existed, as did Sheriff Heath of Hackensack. Stewart based her story on records and news articles of the time, which, incredibly, have been completely overlooked and forgotten since. The title, to begin with, is an actual headline referring to the formidable six-foot-tall Constance, who along with her sisters was issued firearms as protection against Kaufman’s reprisal attempts. Other actual documents have been worked into the narrative, adding to its authentic period flavor.
There are blanks in the record, which is why Stewart decided to present her story as fiction, and sees her characters as living a fictional existence parallel to the real ones. She’s invented a subplot that allows Constance to try out her detective skills and also reflect on the secrets of her past, and given Norma a rather noticeable hobby (raising carrier pigeons) that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the historical record. Some of the most astonishing details were drawn from life, though, according to an afterword that helps to sort out fact from fiction. It all merges together seamlessly in the reading, though, and storytelling is the focus rather than research.
This is definitely a character-driven mystery, not one with an elaborate or twisty plot, and though there are lots of threats there’s little on-stage violence. The pleasure is in getting to know tart-tongued Norma, flamboyant Fleurette, and especially Constance, whose search for a place and a purpose in life is tantalizingly given a direction at the very end. I’ve no doubt that readers will be begging for a sequel, and Stewart seems inclined to oblige us. I’ll be eagerly waiting for another installment in the story of the Kopp sisters.
Counted for the Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP X) challenge, hosted by The Estella Society