The opening assignment in Amy Stewart’s new novel, “Lady Cop Makes Trouble,” seems straightforward. The year is 1915, and a prisoner being treated at Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey has escaped during a thunderstorm that plunged the facility into darkness. A sheriff’s deputy is ordered to recapture the prisoner — an elderly German con man named Herman Albert von Matthesius, who has been arrested for posing as the director of a sanitarium and drugging and marry a wealthy young woman while she was under his care.
Nothing, however, is routine about that assignment, starting with the identity of the deputy. Constance Kopp is Bergen County, New Jersey’s first female sheriff’s deputy. A sturdy professional, Constance can pound the pavement and tackle fleeing ruffians, as well as — if not better than — any man. But as readers of Stewart’s first Kopp Sisters novel, “Girl Waits With Gun,” know, the most remarkable thing about Deputy Constance Kopp is that she is inspired by a real person of the same name.
New Jersey had only recently passed a law allowing women to serve as deputy sheriffs, matrons and police officers when the real-life Constance Kopp was hired in 1915 as a deputy by Bergen County Sheriff Robert Heath. Kopp’s exploits, which included firing a handgun and chasing down male criminals and slapping handcuffs on them, were breathlessly described in newspapers of the time. Stewart drew on those accounts for “Girl Waits With Gun,” which fleshed out some of Constance’s actual adventures, as well as imagining her off-duty life with her two real-life sisters, Norma and Fleurette.
Stewart’s “Kopp Sisters” series is sometimes guilty of being a bit twee. (There’s a running subplot, for instance, involving the sublimated romantic feelings between Constance and her married boss.) Stewart offsets the series’ sentimentality, however, with her dogged attention to the specific — and often sordid — details of Constance’s work life, which include treating prisoners with “petroleum oil” and “delousing powder.”
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“I’d served divorce papers to an estranged wife, investigated a charge of illegal cohabitation, chased down a girl attempting to run away on a train, put clothes on a prostitute who was found naked and half-dead from opium in a card room above a tailor’s shop … The prostitute had soiled herself and had to be washed in the card room’s dingy basin, and the girl running for the train bit my arm when I caught her, and still I assert that I had never been more content. Improbable as it may sound, I had, at last, found work that suited me.”
As the novel unfolds, that job is threatened. The wily von Matthesius escaped while Constance was on duty outside his room at Hackensack Hospital. If he isn’t tracked down quickly, not only will Constance be booted off the force, but, in accordance with the laws then in place, her beloved boss will not only lose his job but also take von Matthesius’ place in jail.
“Lady Cop Makes Trouble” takes readers on a lively chase through a lost world. It’s a colorful and inventive adventure tale that also contains a serious message at its core about the importance of meaningful work to women’s identities and, in some cases, survival.
Maureen Corrigan reviewed this book for The Washington Post.