Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Killing of Innocents, by Deborah Crombie

This book is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. I was very glad to see that the HarperCollins workers' union (Local 2110 UAW) reached an agreement with the publisher this week after more than three months on strike. The union did not ask people to boycott HarperCollins books, but many readers refused to review or publicize HC books in solidarity. This was the first HC book I've had to write about since getting back to blogging.

This is the 19th book in Deborah Crombie's long-running series of police procedurals, featuring married police officers Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. In the early books, Gemma was part of Duncan's team at Scotland Yard. As their relationship became personal, they kept it secret until Gemma earned a promotion and moved to her own team. In later books their cases often overlap, or one or the other finds a reason to get involved.

The previous book, A Bitter Feast, was published back in 2019, and I had started to wonder if it might be the last. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a new book announced for April of this year, and it immediately went on my "52 books" list. It was an even bigger surprise when the publication was moved up to early February. I had started re-reading some of the more recent books in the series, since it's been a good while, and I'm glad I started with A Bitter Feast, because I didn't have as much time for re-reading as I'd planned!

A Killing of Innocents takes place a few months after the last book, so before COVID. It's apparently set in 2018, since there is a reference to Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Mary Poppins Returns." In such a long-running series, with the first published in 1993, I don't think that Deborah Crombie is tying the books to a current timeline.

The story opens in London with the death of a young doctor in training, Sasha Johnson. She is stabbed one evening while walking through a crowded Russell Square, and the only one who even notices her fall to the ground is a five-year-old boy. The case falls to Duncan and his team out of the Holborn station. As always, the story has a real sense of place, with a beautifully detailed map of the area of the investigations. Running parallel with the investigations are side stories with Duncan's team, particularly his sergeant Doug, Gemma and her sergeant Melody, and Gemma and Duncan's blended family of three children, and their family and friends. It was lovely to meet these characters again and to catch up with their lives, but I could see it might be a little confusing to a new reader. There are also new characters to follow, particularly Duncan's team in Holborn, with sections written from their points of view. It does take the focus of Gemma and Duncan, though they remain central to the story.

While the mystery is resolved very neatly, the story ended with two minor cliffhangers, for Duncan and Gemma and also for Melody. This isn't the first time Deborah Crombie has done this. I remember that the last page of The Sound of Broken Glass had me quickly flipping through the blank end pages, unable to believe that there wasn't more. The cliffhangers here give me hope that Deborah Crombie has another book in mind.

N.B. This was book #4 in my "52 books for 2023", and well worth a place.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

This Grand Experiment, by Jessica Ziparo

The subtitle of this history is "When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C." I learned about it from references in Walter Stahr's biography of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury in Abraham Lincoln's Civil War cabinet. I had some vague knowledge that women first came to work for the U.S. government during the Civil War, Clara Barton being perhaps the best-known example, but I didn't know much. I was curious to learn more, and the description of this book made me add it to my reading stacks:

"In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Although the press and government officials considered the federal employment of women to be an innocuous wartime aberration, women immediately saw the new development for what it was: a rare chance to obtain well-paid, intellectually challenging work in a country and time that typically excluded women from such channels of labor. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washing with applications. Here, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement."
Ziparo makes it clear from the first pages that this is not a story of triumphal achievement for women. They were paid significantly less than men, they had to put a lot of time and effort into getting a position, they faced hostility and sexual harassment from their male coworkers, and there was no job security. Women were also crowded into corners and attics, as supervisors struggled with adapting work spaces for women (hoop skirts took up a lot of room), and working out how men and women could share offices. In addition, Ziparo acknowledges that most of the sources for her history privilege white middle-class women's experiences. Working-class women, both Black and white, have left fewer archival sources and are often left out of contemporary accounts.

Despite the challenges they faced, however, once women got a foothold in government employment, they never lost it. They were not pushed out of jobs after the Civil War in the same way they would be in the 20th century, to make way for the returning soldiers. In part, as Ziparo explains, this is because of the way the women's work was framed. Many of the jobs, like cutting out currency bills or binding government publications, were seen as "women's work." Men didn't compete for those jobs. Hiring women was also presented as a means of assisting the widows and orphans of the brave Union soldiers, making it more acceptable for them to work outside the home, and they still needed that assistance after the war ended. In reality, they were often supporting a home, with parents or children dependent on them.

It was sobering to read the letters of female applicants, who desperately needed work, but also needed male patrons with influence in the government offices or in Congress. The traditional work open to women outside the home was teaching or domestic work. As noted above, the jobs in the government offices, though paying women half what the male employees received, was still some of the best-paid work available. And while some of the work was repetitive and boring, like counting currency, it still got women into the nation's capital and into the proverbial halls of power. As Ziparo notes, it also normalized women's presence in government buildings and in public life.

One of the women whose career Ziparo follows through her history is Julia Wilbur, who kept a diary during her years in Washington. I was disappointed to find that the diary has not been published, though it has been digitized and transcribed. I did find however a biography, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time, and I decided it was worth a spot on my 52 books for the year.