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The Widow Spy

A Novel

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About The Book

The author of the “magnificent…complex, vivid” (New York Journal of Books) Sin Eater returns with a rousing and propulsive novel based on the astonishing true story of the first female Pinkerton detective whose next assignment could end the Civil War.

Kate Warne is many things: the country’s first female detective, a Pinkerton agent, and a union spy.

It’s August 1861, and her latest assignment could finally end the bloody war and bring the fractured United States together again. All she has to do is win the trust of her captive: Confederate spy and socialite Rose Greenhow. But with Rose well aware of Kate’s working-class background and belief in abolitionism, it seems an impossible task. Worst, Kate has secrets that make her vulnerable, such as her forbidden love affair with a colleague.

With time running out, Kate faces not only the moral and political divides between herself and Rose but also the ones she made in her own heart and life. Can she make the difficult decision over which divides are worth crossing? Or will she fail the most important assignment of her career in this spellbinding and moving new novel from Megan Campisi?


Chapter One – One –
AUGUST 23, 1861

I’m standing on the front step beside Detective Allan Pinkerton, head of Abraham Lincoln’s secret service, when our suspect answers the door.

She’s a handsome woman, somewhere on the far side of forty. Tall, like me, but with an olive complexion, dark hair, and slim build. Dressed in black mourning silk.

Does she know who we are? She knows enough to take a paper from her pocket and shove it into her mouth. Right there in front of us, she tries to swallow the damn thing. I lunge over to fish it out. When a suspected spy starts eating messages, you know you’ve found something.

Pinkerton pushes me toward her. I’m scrabbling at her lips, trying to get my fingers on the evidence. He pushes us both deeper into her house and shuts the front door behind us, so no curious neighbors get to talking. The suspect, the widow Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow, is still trying her damnedest to chew up the paper.

I can’t get to it. She’ll bite off a finger, if she catches one. Pinkerton is hissing directions from the side. He’s not a patient man, my employer. Finally, he shoves me aside and gets in there himself. He cradles the woman’s head in his hands just like a baby and jams a sausage-sized finger in through the space of a pulled back tooth.

And he does it: He pries the woman’s jaws open and fishes out the message. Well, half the message.

“You must be iron-willed.” He waves the soggy mess of chewed paper in my face. The widow is a bent heap of fury beside him. There’s enough of the letter left to see it’s enciphered. And there’s hardly a doubt it’s a Confederate cipher. We found our spy.

About two minutes later, Pinkerton puts the widow under house arrest in her own parlor. It’s an incredible piece of luck finding our evidence so quickly. But that’s just the beginning of the work. Our job now is to get the woman’s cipher key. Most people cannot commit an entire cipher to memory, so they keep a key written down. We find that, we can intercept Confederate intelligence regarding their next moves.

But the moment we put Widow Greenhow under arrest, the clock starts ticking. We’ve got a narrow window of time before anyone discerns she’s been compromised and the cipher gets changed. Now, we’ve exercised extraordinary care in the widow’s capture. And Pinkerton has given orders to sequester any persons who come knocking at her door, be it the milk boy or some big bug, so as to keep word of the woman’s arrest within these walls. As long as the widow doesn’t start sending smoke signals, we’ve got ourselves a window. How long? Pinkerton estimates it at about two days.

We could end the whole war right here from this house. That’s our aim.

About The Author

Photograph by Gates Hurand

Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. She has been a forest ranger, a sous-chef in Paris, and a physical theater specialist around the world. She attended Yale University and l’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. In 2019 she received a Fulbright Specialist award to travel to Turkey and give master classes at Tatbikat Theater. Her first novel, Sin Eater, received the Debut Crown Award from the Historical Writers’Association. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Megan lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 9, 2024)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668024850

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Raves and Reviews

"Campisi follows up Sin Eater with a gripping and richly imagined mystery...With piercing prose and a nimble balance of emotion and suspense, Campisi expertly melds the best of historical mystery with top-shelf literary fiction. Amy Stewart and Sarah Waters fans, take note: this is a must-read."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The characters are richly layered and the mid-nineteenth century atmosphere is completely tangible. Campisi makes an exciting return to historical fiction with a new tale of moral quandaries and the hidden talents of women as Kate revisits episodes from her traumatic past and ponders what type of person she wants to become."—Booklist

Praise for Sin Eater

"A riveting description of hardwon female empowerment that weaves together meticulous research, unsolved murder--and an unforgettable heroine. Exhilarating...great storytelling...reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale or Russell Hoban's great sui-generis sci-fi novel Riddley Walker."

– The Washington Post

Sin Eater is a dark and thrilling page turner that turns a dystopian eye on the past in an unnervingly contemporary way. All hail Megan Campisi and her smashing novel.”

– Emma Donoghue, New York Times bestselling author of Room and Akin

"The Name of the Rose meets Wolf Hall in this brilliant, bewitching novel. Megan Campisi conjures a deliciously warped version of sixteenth-century Britain: Tudor England in a funhouse mirror. Her heroine, a young girl cruelly rendered pariah, is ingeniously sketched and achingly real. Ms. Campisi has created a dark, rich story replete with humor, unforgettable characters, and arcane mysteries. It casts a spell on your heart and mind until the final page."

– Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters

"A dark, propulsive novel that twists your stomach in all the right ways.”

– Lit Hub

“Magnificent...complex, vivid... This vision of Renaissance outsiders is exactly what historical fiction lovers have unknowingly craved.”

– New York Journal of Books

“[A] rousing, impressive debut… Campisi’s stirring portrait of injustice is deepened by May’s cleverness, frustration, and grief. This spellbinding novel is a treat for fans of feminist speculative fiction.”

– Publishers Weekly

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