Before turning to historical fiction, Amy Stewart gave us deeply researched, entertaining books covering plants, worms, bugs and booze. One day, in the course of her investigations, she came across newspaper reports of a certain Miss Constance Kopp. The 6-foot-tall 35-year-old became notorious in the summer of 1914 as the gun-toting protector of her mother, sisters and family farm outside Paterson, N.J. She went on to become one of the few female sheriff’s deputies in the country.
Out of Stewart’s discovery came 2015’s “Girl Waits With Gun,” the first in what is now, with “Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit,” a four-novel series. The books are based on actual events with characters and deeds embellished to create marvelous historical novels.
The present book finds Constance as both deputy and matron of the female prisoners at the Hackensack county jail in the autumn of 1916. Though she often sleeps at the jail, she still lives on the farm with her sisters: Norma, a surly customer who handles the manual labor and raises homing pigeons, and Fleurette, a skilled seamstress, aspiring actress and spirited handful. The story begins with a high-speed foot chase through the streets of Hackensack as Constance runs down a thief and tackles him. “Nothing,” she tells us, “is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion.”
But how long will such opportunities be open to this robust public servant? Elections are approaching and Constance’s mentor and boss, Sheriff Heath, has come to the end of his three-year term and, at the behest of his social-climbing wife, is running for a seat in Congress. The race for sheriff is now between William Conklin, a fount of bonhomie and — when it comes to Constance — male condescension, and John Courter, a thoroughly bad egg who has it in for both Sheriff Heath and Constance.
After arresting her thief, Constance’s next duty is to help transport two lunatics to the madhouse in Morris Plains. The first breaks free and jumps into the fast-running, sewage-rich Hackensack River. Constance plunges in after him, and, in another scene of high-octane action, seizes him before he drowns. The second person destined for Morris Plains is Anna Kayser, who is being committed by her husband. Arriving to collect her, Constance discovers that Anna, showing no sign of insanity, is peacefully preparing her husband’s dinner and has no idea she is to be hauled off. There is something hinky about the whole deal.
Constance is not the sort of woman to let things be and she makes it her unofficial business to get to the bottom of this clearly unwarranted confinement. It is an ugly story based on the ability of husbands to commit inconvenient wives more or less at whim as long as they pay the incarcerating asylum’s fees.
The other main strand of the engrossing plot concerns Courter’s vicious campaign directed chiefly against Sheriff Heath and his protegee, Constance, rather than his actual opponent. “A man who does nothing but cast out hate and blame couldn’t possibly be elected to office,” Constance reasons. We’ll see. Courter’s is the sort of campaign with which we, alas, are familiar. He distorts the record with diabolical effectiveness, accusing Constance of letting prisoners escape and of attempting to set lunatics free. He unlooses endemic misogyny and, noting her German surname, plays to rising anxiety about what will surely be America’s entrance into the war raging in Europe. “What made it worse,” Constance reports, “was that the crowd seemed to love it. It was an uncertain time in Bergen County: there was labor unrest in the factories, a mistrust of immigrants who might be German sympathizers, and the very real fear that a munitions depot might go up like so many crates of firecrackers at the hands of secret agents of the Kaiser.”
Aside from its plot, fine character development and nicely timed humor, the novel excels in revisiting a vanished time, place and sensibility. Clothes, food and transportation are smoothly integrated into the story. Constance’s flouting of the proper role of women is central. Her exploits make her, in the popular mind, more of an astonishment than a noble creature. Certainly, Constance’s brother has never cared for her choice of vocation — or for Norma’s, for that matter. He would like to see the two take up the approved life of spinsters. It’s “a cozy picture,” Constance tells us, with “me and Norma rooming together in some small cottage in town: two twin beds in an attic with a wash-stand and a toilet adjacent. And a little parlor where we’d sit in the evening and complain about the price of running the gas lights.” It’s a chilling vision, making the outcome of the election all the more crucial.
Katherine A. Powers is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.”
By Amy Stewart. 320 pp. $26.