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Historical Mysteries

Lipstick and Lies, Margit Liesche, Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95.

A complex story set in wartime Detroit, Margit Liesche's first novel, Lipstick and Lies, is an inside look at the life of an undercover agent trying to infiltrate a group of Nazi sympathizers. Her central character, Pucci Lewis, has trained as a pilot, and is then pulled into OSS for training. She's useful in situations where men aren't - Liesche keeps the action believably confined to "women's" domains, i.e., a women's prison and a fancy club. Using perhaps the strength of the feminine - fine motor skills - Pucci has excelled in "spy" school in "flaps and seals" - in other words, she can open an envelope and check out the contents without anyone being the wiser. Like Pucci herself, the reader is literally dropped into the action as Pucci's first assignment takes her to the Willow Run plant to meet with her aviation supervisor and she first thing stumbles over a dead body. Her snooping into the dead body is intercepted by a G-man in the form of one Agent Dante, who whisks Pucci away to her new assignment. Her aviation boss, Jackie, is "sharing" Pucci with the OSS so she can go undercover in the women's prison in Detroit to try and uncover some secrets about a famous spy-counteragent, Countess Grace Buchanan-Dineen.

Using actual historical characters - both the Countess and Pucci's aviation supervisor, Jackie, were real people - and real events, Liesche weaves a very likely and complicated story. Pucci doesn't last long in the prison - she gains a few drops of information, but the OSS yanks her out and puts her in another undercover slot, posing as a reporter, in a ritzy women's city club where something as innocent as a fundraising "Book Faire" at the club seems like it might be a way for secret messages to be passed. Pucci's target is the melancholy society matron, Kiki Barclay-Bly, the woman running the Book Faire and a former confidant of the now jailed Countess. Pucci nimbly manages to get an introduction to Kiki as well as an in at the Willow Run plant where her mission is to scope out the lay of the land so OSS agents can infiltrate a certain office, on the hunt for incriminating blueprints.

Pucci is also gobsmacked to encounter a friend from spy school, Liberty, working undercover at the club as a manicurist under the unlikely nom de guerre of Glossy Fingers. Pucci is delighted to encounter her old friend, but the events swirling around her are incredibly complicated, as no one turns out to be what they seem to be. Pucci proves to be invaluable on her various missions, however, and is in at the final denouement. Liesches' liberal use of actual historical facts - for example, did you know dwarves were used to rivet the underside of airplane wings, because they were small enough to squeeze inside? - livens the narrative considerably. And she uses generous dollops of details of various spy equipment, circa 1940. The mood of the this book, similar in a way to the recent film "The Good Shepard" in that it's about the birth of modern government intelligence agencies differs from that film in tone. Pucci is energized by her assignments and delighted not by the war, of course, but by the opportunities the war has afforded her, opportunities that wouldn't have come her way in peacetime. A note at the end of the novel talks about Liesche's own life as the child of Hungarian refugees who had worked as missionaries in China. A quiet girl, she absorbed the stories of the war refugees flowing through her home - the outcasts of Hitler and Stalin - and many years later, those stories have taken root in the form of this interesting and unusual novel.

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