Books

Amy Stewart
Girl Waits with Gun

Thirty-five-year-old Constance Kopp, the irresistibly straight-shooting narrator of Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun, is tall, strong, fearless and disinclined to domesticity. She shares a house in rural New Jersey with her sisters, Norma – a blunt instrument of a woman with “all the girlish charm of a boulder” – and Fleurette, a “small and crafty” teenager with an extravagant imagination and a craving for excitement. Excitement comes their way in spades when, one fine day in 1914, a slimy and arrogant factory owner, the “overfed” Henry Kaufman, smashes into their horse-drawn buggy with his motor car. 

Kaufman scoffs at Constance’s insistence that he pay for the damage to the buggy: “Get offa my car, lady.” But she doesn’t take orders and doesn’t respond well to threats. Kaufman and his “gang of ruffians” may be as thick as the bricks they send through her window, but they’re also wily and dangerous. 

Girl Waits with Gun is great fun. Its action-packed narrative zips along from the first page to the last and it features a cast of memorable characters, including its fabulously mettlesome heroines as well as dastardly villains. Adding to the enjoyment is the knowledge that it’s based on a true story. Constance Kopp’s tenacious battle for justice led to her appointment as America’s first female deputy sheriff. The book’s title comes from an actual newspaper headline.

But Girl Waits with Gun also paints a stark – and dare I say, familiar – picture of a world in which the wealthy literally get away with murder and the poor are lucky to get away with, well, anything, really. Stewart describes in Dickensian detail the silk factories of New Jersey, on which the fashions of New York depended, much as today’s clothing industry relies on the sweatshops of Asia: the silk-dyeing workshops with their “coppery sulfuric stench” and the workers whose clothes are soaked in chemical dyes and who must sacrifice much of their income back to their employers (who are also slumlords) as rent. And when Stewart delves into the issues of sexual harassment and women’s reputations, we are again reminded both of how far we have come and how far we have to go. This is a romp with substance.

In the 1920s, the real-life Kopp sisters opened their own private detective agency. We haven’t heard the last of them from Stewart, who is working on a sequel, and has several more in the works. Can’t wait.  CG

Scribe, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG