Talking Thrillers with Author Fred Van Lente: Never Sleep

Fred Van Lente

Fred Van Lente is a six-time New York Times bestselling comics writer, novelist, and playwright whose work ranges from mysteries, thrillers, and historical fiction to superheroes and comedy.

Based on the thrilling true story of the first two female private detectives in US history trying to save Abraham Lincoln from white supremacists at the dawn of the Civil War, we caught up with Fred to talk about his latest release, Never Sleep.

Never Sleep is an Apple Books Pick of Most Anticipated Books of Spring and is available now in all formats and from all retailers.

TFx: Where did you come up with the idea for this book, and what can you tell us about the plot?

Fred: While researching a book I was doing on Abraham Lincoln for HarperCollins, I came across the details of the Baltimore Plot, which was an attempt by white supremacists in Baltimore to kill president-elect Lincoln as he was travelling across the country by train to be inaugurated in Washington.

What interested me most about this real-life story was that among the group of Pinkerton private detectives assigned to ferreting out the plot included the first ever female private detective in American history--Kate Warne (Warn in the book--I fictionalized most of the major principals' names). But there was also another woman detective on the case, Hattie Lawton, who went undercover with Kate: Hattie in the country, Kate is the city. I wondered what happens to the first-ever female private detective when she finds herself  having to train the second? And in this incredibly dangerous environment, infiltrating a bunch of dangerous armed fanatics who want to overthrow the US government.

You have youth versus experience, city versus country, undercover operatives versus actual fanatics, all on the brink of the most violent war in our country's history. All of these tensions make for really gripping drama.

TFx: What draws you to writing in the thriller genre?

Fred: As a novelist I love putting characters under extreme pressure and seeing how they get out of it. That's really the crux of the thriller--unscrewing yourself out of a bad situation. Kate and Hattie have to infiltrate the conspirators pretending to be just like them. They have to save Lincoln without sacrificing their own lives--or their souls. You don't get much more thrilling than that. 

I also like kick-ass women characters, something I've enjoyed writing my whole career. And there's plenty of espionage intrigue in the book, and clever 19th century spycraft, which is something I really get into. The big climax is an action sequence that is quite possibly my favorite thing I've ever written, prose-wise. And there's a tender romance with a character I haven't mentioned yet that early readers are really reacting to. 

I want readers to gasp, I want them to think, I want them to keep turning pages until the big finish--I want it all! (laughs) And the thriller genre is perfect for providing all that. 

TFx: Which actor can you imagine playing the main character in the movie version of your book?

Fred: Ooh, that's a great question. Elisabeth Moss for Kate Warn was in my head while I was writing, and for Hattie, her younger protege, Florence Pugh would be great.

TFx: How much research went into the writing of this book?

Fred: Quite a lot! Which is detailed somewhat in the Acknowledgements at the end. I started this book, geez, in earnest around 2016, and it was quite a process. Two separate trips walking around Baltimore, taking notes.

One thing I try to do with every history project that is maybe a little different than a lot of writers is, I try to cook all the food the characters are eating myself. I am a big home cook, that's one of my bigger hobbies. Thanks to the University of Houston's historic menu archive, I know the exact menu of the hotel Kate Warn is staying at in the book (Barnum's City Hotel, Baltimore) and I made a bunch of the dishes off of it so I could accurately describe what she's eating. Taste and smell are such huge senses for triggering memories, filling in that part of the world for the reader really makes them feel like they've been transported back in time.

TFx: What is the significance of the title?

Fred: It's got a few levels to it. "We Never Sleep" was the motto of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which Kate and Hattie work for, and I love how the designer worked their always-open-eye motif into the book cover. There's a much more literal meaning to it, too, in that the deeper Kate gets in the intrigue of the plotters, she begins getting terrible insomnia, which she fears will dull her senses at the worst possible time.

But the more important meaning of the title, to me, is the universal truth that threats to democracy are constant and so we have to remain constantly vigilant, never let our guard down. That's as true in 2023 as it was in 1861,. The best historical fiction speaks directly to conditions today--that's what I'm striving for in Never Sleep. Hopefully readers agree I've achieved it.

TFx: What was the hardest scene to write in this book?

Fred: One of the things Kate and Hattie have to confront in the story is the brutality of American chattel slavery, which, having spent much of their lives in the Chicago area, is something they've never really seen first hand. There's racism in Chicago, of course, and the anti-Black laws in Illinois were among the worst in the North, but the sheer violence with which this system has to be maintained is shocking to those not prepared for it. And because they're trying to infiltrate these white supremacist, secessionist gangs, they can't express their horror at that system if they want to stay alive. 
What's the line between pretending to be a bad person in order to do good, and actually being a bad person? That's the grey area Kate and Hattie inhabit for much of the book.

TFx: What perspectives or beliefs have you challenged with this work?

Fred: In retrospect, all history seems inevitable, but when you're writing from the point of view of people experiencing the events in real-time, there is that terrifying feeling of uncertainty. You're on a roller coaster with no breaks; all you can think is, what's going to happen next? This takes place right before the Civil War starts, and so many people Kate and Hattie encounter think it's not going to happen, or if it does happen, it's not going to be a big deal.

The main characters want to shake people like, "Why aren't you taking this more seriously?!" A lot of the truly horrible things that have happened in history, like Nazi death camps or 9/11, are helped to happen in no small part because too many people think it can't happen, it just doesn't fit into their worldview. A lot of what Kate and Hattie have to struggle with is getting people to understand the enormity of this looming threat as they start to uncover it for themselves. 

TFx: Tell us something fun about you that readers might be surprised to know?

Fred: The name of the pub trivia team I'm on is Possums Can't Get Rabies. Which is true! Their blood temperature is too low. I just like the fact my trivia team name is a piece of trivia itself. 

Get Fred Van Lente’s latest release, Never Sleep, out now on Amazon

Never Sleep

A Civil War–era historical novel featuring female operatives in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency who work to foil an assassination attempt on President Lincoln’s life.

The year is 1861, the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. For Kate Warn, the first female private detective in American history, the only assignment tougher than exposing a conspiracy to assassinate the new president is training her new mentee, Hattie McLaughlin, in the art of detection.

The two women’s mission to save the president takes them from the granges of rural Maryland to the heart of secessionist high society, and sets them on a collision course that could alter the course of history. When Kate’s cover is blown, Hattie must choose between saving her new friend, and her country. Based on a true story.

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