With Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott carved herself a niche as the “sizzle historian,” spinning entertaining non-fiction tales of the seedier side of America’s past. She ably continues mining this rich vein of material for her third book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells four concurrent stories of women engaged in espionage on both sides of the Civil War.
Abbott delivers a piping hot helping of material, and most Civil War buffs should find at least some of it new. Take Belle Boyd, one of the four. Most Civil War fans know her name, a fact that must give Boyd’s ghost a great deal of satisfaction, yet usually references to her focus on whether she actually did anything useful as a spy. Her character as a saucy firebrand and all-around bad girl who swigged whiskey with the best of them often goes unremarked, and the extent of her hijinks certainly came as news to me.
The thing I found most interesting in Abbott’s book was how the choice of the four women, two Confederate and two Union, illustrated the stereotype personalities of the two regions. Boyd and Rose Greenhow were both arrogant, vain women whose character flaws severely compromised their espionage careers. Both were caught, both courted notoriety, and the only reason either escaped the noose was that women generally weren’t hung for treason in the early 1860s (just a couple years later, however, they were: witness Mary Surratt). By and large, Boyd’s and Greenhow’s style of conceit died out after the Victorian era, but Abbott ably translates it into the modern era.
Against this we have the example of Elizabeth Van Lew, and with her story the book truly shines. Van Lew operated as an effective spy master for the Union in Richmond, the capital of her enemies, for the duration of the war. Abbott’s portrayal of Van Lew’s poise and caution stands in vivid contrast to Boyd and Greenhow, and her story provides the book’s continuing tension. She was never caught, although she came close to it on many occasions. It is in Elizabeth Van Lew that the narrative moves from action, farce and sex romp and into the territory of the hard-bitten espionage yarn promised by the John Le Carre-inspired title.
The history of the Civil War gives short space to women. When they do appear, it is as the wife of some important man, in connection with the U.S. Sanitary Commission or as a nameless member of an angry mob in the Southern bread riots. With the addition of Emma Edmonds, who played a double game by posing as a man, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and then serving as a scout and spy, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delivers an entertaining spread of stories about women who did their wartime service on their own terms. The book is ideal summer vacation reading, and it’s not too late to pick it up and take it on a September getaway.