Learning about the past while indulging in my favorite pastime—reading—doubles my pleasure. Good historical novels have now become a predominant presence on my Kindle. “The Innocents”, the first book in a new detective-mystery series by author C.A. Asbrey is a superb example of getting first-rate entertainment while getting an accurate glimpse of life in the mid-1800s.
History doesn’t really come alive for me as much in “history books” the way it does when presented in novel form. I get so much more context from physical descriptions of the time and place when shown through the prism of the characters involved, whether they are based on real people or an amalgamation of personalities culled from a certain era.
I knew nothing about the history of the Pinkerton Agency until I read “The Innocents”. I became so fascinated by Pinkerton Detective Abigail MacKay as she risks her life—and nearly loses it while in pursuit of the counterfeit “Innocents”—that I read up on the history of the longstanding company. It became apparent right away that the author knew what she was writing about. She also has her own background in law enforcement, which gives her writing even more weight.
But there’s no mistaking this first book as weighty historical stuff. It’s alive with the verve of a modern-day action-drama and is seasoned with sly humor throughout. “The Innocents” is a super satisfying page turner that left me hankering for more.
It’s my distinct pleasure to give you C.A. Asbrey’s Story Behind “The Innocents”:
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, and in a land far, far away, I joined the police. It was a time of great change in Scotland. The Equal Pay Act in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 drove changes which were both welcomed and hated by people at the same time. The old policewoman’s department, which dealt with sexual offences, children and female prisoners, was disbanded. Women were suddenly doing full shifts, foot patrols, and everything the men did. There were men who grudged women earning the same as a man, wives who didn’t want their husbands working with women, open discrimination, and a whole set of women who joined the police to work under the old regime and didn’t really want to work like the men. Many of us young people loved it. It was a time of upheaval and almost everything was new to everyone. It has to be said there were many decent and supportive men around too. Like any time of great change, it was both challenging and exhilarating.
Our training sergeant was an engaging lady of great experience, full of tales, anecdotes, and quite an expert on the earliest women in our force. I loved her and was quickly fascinated by all her tales. It got me wondering more about the earliest women in law enforcement. I soon found myself reading more and more about these unsung pioneers. The USA and the UK both employed police women since the early twentieth century, but I wanted to go as far back as I could. I eventually found out that the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the USA was the first to employ women as fully-fledged professionals from 1856. The French did employ women in the Sûreté earlier than this, but they were mostly prostitutes used as honey traps, so I discounted those as professional detectives.
I was slightly shocked that I had never heard of these women, or the work they did, so I read everything I could about them. The first was Kate Warne, rumoured to be a former actress and a widow. Like the rest of the women in her department she was an expert at assuming roles and working undercover. The women were held in the highest esteem by Alan Pinkerton due to their excellent results. They were very successful, and even acted as an armed guard for Abraham Lincoln. The seeds for my heroine, Abigail MacKay, were sown.
Questions and research threw up more and more things to investigate. In the only known picture of Kate Warne she is dressed as a man. Could all that long Victorian hair be concealed under a short wig? The internet answered that one. Cosplay and LARP gave me real-life examples of women with hair down to their bottoms who managed to get it under a short wig. One woman even explains how to pleat her long, thick hair and coil it flat under the cap before putting the short wig on. It absolutely IS possible.
But what about makeup? What disguises were available?
The theatrical make up, used as disguises in the book, began to flourish right around the period the books are set in. Lighting had improved and people could see the flaws in the rudimentary makeup used previously on stages lit by candles.
Greasepaint was invented in the 1860s by Ludwig Leichner, building on the work of Karl Freidrich Baudius (1796–1860) in the 1850s. Lighting also improved costumes and acting techniques. It drove a desire for more natural representations in every area, simply because people could see the stage more clearly. Crepe hair went out and quality wigs came in. Colors were mixed to mimic skin tones and classes in their application were popular in the acting profession. Latex wasn’t invented until 1920, but prior to that rubber was molded applied to a light fabric backing for theatrical use, or on metal for medical prosthetics. When it was the right shape it was expertly painted to look exactly like a nose, dewlap, bald cap, or any other body part. This work influenced the work on prosthetics for the disfigured and disabled, and became more main stream after the First World War. Before them it was only available to the very rich.
The forensics are fascinating to dig into too. I’ve read multiple books on crime from the period as well as actual court transcripts, paying great attention to the methodologies used by the doctors determined to bring murders to book. Some of the details are compellingly gruesome, and it’s a good job I’m not in the least squeamish. I’m also lucky in that I can speak to people who work in the field and know their stuff too.
Many of the tests used back then are basic chemistry, so they are pretty much the same as those carried out today. I like my characters to do the test, and show the reader how they found the results. I also like to reflect the vagaries of 19th century justice. The skills and determination to catch a killer varied from town to town. The status of the victim counted a great deal, as did the social standing of the victim. Sexual offences against the poor went largely ignored, especially if the accused was seen as respectable and the victim wasn’t. In fact, if you were one of the undeserving poor you could count on very little support or assistance from the authorities, no matter what happened to you. In parts of London, at one point, it was even a given that ANY woman out after dark was a prostitute, which meant that many poor women were arrested just walking home from work. This only ended when one plucky shop girl defended her case and dared to challenge the police.
You name it, I researched it, right down to what shades of clothes were available at that time, what stationary they used. How did they copy documents, what technology was invented and in use? What spy techniques did they use, how were these women trained?
Sadly, many of the records on the female Pinkertons were destroyed in a fire, so I had some gaps to fill in. I went to the next best thing—my own experience as a police officer and the training given to the women who worked for British Intelligence.
Some of the most openly misogynistic comments in the book actually happened to me. I certainly cleaned them up a lot, but I figured that as the first group of modern women doing a man’s job, my experience was comparable to my predecessors in the 19th century doing the same thing. Women were protected by a degree of chivalry, but any student of history will tell you that disappeared the minute a woman stepped outside the rule Victorian society dictated for her.
There’s an old adage which tells you to write what you know. My own maiden name was constantly mispronounced and misspelled, so I gave her a name which is always mispronounced in the USA. It works on a few levels. It reinforces her identity as she is introduced to the reader, and is used a plot device to alert the hero when he hears someone pronouncing it correctly in a later book.
I made her Scottish, as I certainly know what it’s like to be Scottish in the USA. I made her dark as it’s actually a very Celtic coloring, despite the stereotype being red hair (which is actually a minority). Think Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta Jones, Aiden Turner; they are all very Celtic and all very dark. And as the man who started the agency was Scottish, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine he’d employ a talented countrywoman.
Any woman doing such work in the 19th century would have been as determined and individual as any of the strong women I met in law enforcement in the 20th century. Possibly even more so, so I was determined to write Abigail as a forceful and intelligent, while keeping her as a woman of her time. Despite working as part of a team, no female police officer is ever a sidekick, or a lesser version, of her male counterpart, contrary to the picture painted in many books and movies. Nor is my detective. She is a fully-trained, skilled investigator and is nobody’s assistant, which is fully borne out in all the writings still available on the female Pinkertons. Just like the real female Pinkertons she goes in to work undercover on her own.
I gave her a formidable opponent in a charismatic criminal who is every bit as clever as she is, and they both find their skill set dovetails perfectly to investigate a murder they both have a vested interest in solving. They are fascinated by one another, but any truce can only ever be fleeting. It’s not long before they are on opposite sides once again as ‘best enemies.’
Over the years the idea percolated, the notion of writing the books got put behind a life, family, career, and everything else that everyone lives through. During all that time I continued to research the period, place, social mores, and people until I was thoroughly marinated in the 19th century. A serious accident suddenly forced me to stop and take stock of my life. I changed my career, and I started writing during my lengthy convalescence. The first draft was terrible, but did seem to have a spark of something worth working on.
It took years before I finally finished The Innocents, and all my research fell into place. My next problem was to find a publisher. I was repeatedly told that “Westerns weren’t selling”. Except, it’s not a Western. It’s set everywhere the Pinkertons worked, and by the fourth book they’ve been coast to coast and even to Europe. It’s 19th century Americana and covers the whole of the USA. Abigail does the kind of work the Female agents did, and goes undercover to get information on crime and criminals on her own. One case is set in the West, and it had to be Wyoming as the territory, and later, the state, has no statute of limitations. That is pertinent to the overall arc of the stories.
I was told that that it “wasn’t Western enough”. I was fine with that as it’s not a Western, but it didn’t help me get published. I was told that the characters didn’t “develop their relationship enough”, which was code for “they didn’t jump straight into bed”. It missed the point that the will-they-won’t-they tension building between the two main characters, and that their status on opposite side of the law, means that it would be out of character for an upright 19th century women to jump into a relationship with a criminal. It’s also part of the dynamic tension of the stories.
Eventually, I got the books published and they are building up a head of steam. Like anything slightly different, people are curious and hesitant, wondering what to compare it to. Each one can be read as a self-contained mystery. They are connected by the growing relationship between the Pinkerton and the charismatic criminal she is sent to bring in, as well as the murderous vendetta against the hero by a criminal enemy. The mysteries are twisty and full of fun, because if there’s one thing I found working in the emergency services, it’s that people laugh in the face of adversity all the time. What can I say? If you love mysteries set in the 19th century, give them a go.
Where to find C.A. Asbrey: