Thursday, March 2, 2017

Historical Sleuthing with 'The Detective's Assistant' by Kate Hannigan

I attended Kate Hannigan's session at the summer 2016 SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles. After listening to her interesting presentation, I asked if she would be interested in being our guest blogger. She was gracious and agreed to share the story behind her award winning middle grade history novel, The Detective's Assistant. We both agreed this post was apropos for Women's History Month.

She writes fiction and non-fiction from her home in Chicago. Her historical novel The Detective’s Assistant was the winner of the 2016 Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade novel, received starred reviews from Booklist and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was a Booklist Editors' Choice selection, a Nerdy Book Club Award winner, a Bank Street College Best Children's Book selection, named to state reading lists, as well as an Amelia Bloomer Project List for Feminist Books selection and a Mighty Girl Top Books for Tweens and Teens pick. It also has been optioned for film. Kate’s non-fiction picture book A Lady Has the Floor (Calkins Creek), spotlighting the life and accomplishments of Belva Lockwood, publishes in 2018. Visit her online at

Historical Sleuthing with ‘The Detective’s Assistant’

I was researching a story about camels in the American West of 1856, just after the Gold Rush, when I stumbled upon my own golden nugget. It was just a few sentences about Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency and the day a woman named Kate Warne walked in to his office. But it would grow to become my obsession and later the middle-grade history-mystery novel The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).

Pinkerton recounts in his writings that he’d assumed Kate Warne was there to apply for a secretary position, but she talked her way into having him hire her as a detective. She said she could “worm out” the secrets of the wives and girlfriends of Chicago’s crooks and criminals, and Pinkerton thought it was a marvelous idea. “We live in progressive times,” he told her, and he fancied himself a progressive man.

America’s first woman detective? I was so delighted by the possibilities of telling Kate Warne’s story that I immediately dropped my camel research and dove deep into the Pinkertons—doing my own detective work. And I’ve found it all so fascinating, I’m still reading everything I can about this period of American history.

Because Chicago’s fire in 1871 wiped out so much of the city’s history and records, there is not a lot of material about Kate Warne’s life before becoming a Pinkerton agent. What we know comes from Pinkerton’s accounts in his detective stories, written long after the cases. But there are a few records that survived of Kate Warne’s own words regarding the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s most important case—the thwarting of the Baltimore Plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln on his way from Illinois to Washington and his inauguration. So I relied on them to help shape Kate’s character in my story.

Because these examples of historical record thrill the history nerd in me, I made sure to weave them into the story. For example, the actual messages Pinkerton telegraphed back to the home office in Chicago during the perilous journey through deadly Baltimore in the days leading up to the 1861 inauguration—where Pinkerton referred to President Lincoln as “Nuts,” himself as “Plums,” and Kate Warne as “Barley”—make an appearance in the novel. As do a few newspaper reports that I found both funny and informative.

By wrapping such a crucial moment in the history of our nation in a rollicking story, I thought I could reach more young readers. I hoped that by creating an underdog like Kate Warne’s niece, the irrepressible Nell Warne, we could journey with Kate Warne and the Pinkerton detectives and witness history—and see that it was exciting and heart-stopping and very much worth knowing about.

There are no known photographs of Kate Warne. Here is a painting dated 1866, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
And by throwing the spotlight on a lesser-known, essentially forgotten player from our past, Kate Warne, I’ve tried to show that history is filled with people who contributed to the building of our country but didn’t necessarily represent the mainstream. Because she was a woman, Kate Warne was dismissed as Pinkerton’s lover and her contribution forgotten. Historians pointed to the fact that she was buried near Pinkerton in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

So I went there and checked it out, and she is. But so are many other Pinkerton detectives, so are we to assume they were all Allan Pinkerton’s lovers too? I believe what he wrote about Kate Warne—that she was one of his finest, most capable operatives.

While I hope The Detective’s Assistant makes young readers intrigued by our past and inspired to learn more about American history, I find that it’s also inspired me. I’ve been bitten by the history bug, and now all I want to do is dig up more fascinating people—women and people of color especially, who have long been overlooked by traditional historians.

There is a saying that history is written by the winners. For me, I think history can be a whole lot more interesting when we discover the stories of those just outside that winner’s circle.

"In celebration of Women's History Month, Kate will be giving away THREE COPIES of The Detective's Assistant! Comment below for a chance to win!"


  1. Thank you again, Kate, for posting the interesting facts behind your middle grade historical novel!

  2. I read your book a couple of weeks ago, so I don't need a copy, but thanks for joining us and sharing the story behind your story!

  3. I recently read a biography of Allan Pinkerton which discussed Kate Warne and other Pinkerton detectives, but it did not, fortunately, speculate on an alleged romantic relationship between the two.

  4. What a lovely article, Kate. I'm interested in reading your story.

  5. Great post! Love the idea of looking just outside of the winner's circle. I just started the novel and am loving it!

  6. Wow! As a retired teacher, I realize the value of historical fiction for tweens. There are too few books available to hook the kids into becoming readers of history.
    This book sounds exciting and I can't wait to read it.

  7. As a historical mystery writer myself, I'm tickled pink (a little bit of a pun) to see a novel like this aimed at middle-grade readers. Here's hoping bunches of them enjoy and become enthralled with the genre! I can't wait to read it myself.

  8. When I was a middle grade student the selection of books for that age level was absolutely nil so I am thrilled to see historical mysteries being written for that age group - and looking forward to reading it myself.

  9. I'd love to read your book too, Kate. I enjoyed your blog from a personal slant - family legend has it that my grandfather, J W P Junner oppose Pinkerton on one of his Glasgowcases. Alas, most of the family records , including the ancient family Bible, were destroyed in a fire. So your blog was particularly interesting.Thanks