Four new books out this week zero in on various aspects of American life that women quietly helped pioneer, from fashion photography and spycraft to car culture and crosswords.

Double Click: Twin Photographers in the Golden Age of Magazines

Carol Kino. Scribner, $29 (432p) ISBN 978-1-982113-04-9
Art critic Kino debuts with an engrossing dual biography of Frances and Kathryn McLaughlin (1919–2014), twins who worked as fashion photographers during the glamorous 1940s heyday of American magazines and beyond. After an aunt gave them a camera for their high school graduation, the sisters nurtured a love for photography and in 1940 began modeling for and publishing snapshots in College Bazaar, the junior offshoot of Harper’s Bazaar. Following their senior year of college at the Pratt Institute, they were selected for Vogue’s Prix de Paris—a yearlong employment program with the magazine in Paris and New York—and rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Richard Avedon, André Kertész, and Lee Miller. In 1943, Frances joined the publishing company Condé Nast as the sole female photographer in a “firmament of male stars,” taking color and cinema verité shots for Vogue and Glamour. Meanwhile, Kathryn did evocative, “surrealism-inspired” fashion shoots with Charm, Mademoiselle, and Junior Bazaar, and later became a children’s photographer for such outlets as Parents. Plumbing the sisters’ archives and drawing on interviews with their family members, Kino paints a textured portrait of artists who came of age amid sea changes in magazine publishing and women’s cultural roles, and helped transform the way Americans consumed information and encountered fashion (“photography was a magic carpet, out of the Depression and into the future,” Kino writes). Fashion, photography, and pop culture aficionados will be captivated. Agent: Peter Steinberg, UTA. (Mar.)

In True Face: A Woman’s Life in the CIA, Unmasked

Jonna Mendez, with Wyndham Wood. PublicAffairs, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5417-0312-4
Mendez (The Moscow Rules), the CIA’s former Chief of Disguise, details her fascinating career in this gripping memoir. Mendez began working for the agency in the 1960s, after traveling across Europe in her early 20s and falling for fellow American John Goeser, whom she met while working at a German bank. After she accepted his marriage proposal, Goeser revealed to Mendez that he was with the CIA. Her ambition and knack for espionage—including her skills in developing clandestine film quickly and accurately—helped her move beyond her initial assignment as a “contract wife” tasked with helping Goeser maintain his cover. Her true métier turned out to be designing disguises, and her skills landed her hazardous assignments in risky locations including Russia and East Germany, where she matched wits with the KGB and the Stasi. (The realistic face masks she designed so impressed then-CIA director William Webster that he had her wear one to a meeting with President George H.W. Bush before peeling it off to reveal her true face.) Mendez’s accounts of her high-pressure field work are enhanced by the more quotidian aspects of her service, including her struggles to take on as much responsibility, and make as much money, as her male counterparts. It adds up to an entertaining and enlightening glimpse inside the opaque world of spycraft. Agents: Grainne Fox and Christy Fletcher, UTA. (Mar.)

Women Behind the Wheel: An Unexpected and Personal History of the Car

Nancy A. Nichols. Pegasus, $28.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-639-36559-3
Journalist Nichols (Lake Effect) offers a unique and captivating history of women and the automobile. Combing through decades of carmakers’ advertisements and marketing strategies, Nichols finds that not long after its invention in the 1880s, the automobile became “our most gendered technology”—both marketed directly to women (by 1929, “car companies overwhelmingly turned to fashion and style to stoke sales with [women] as their target audience”) and strongly equated to femininity (“The equivalency between the female body and the car body was drawn so early and so clearly that it was caricatured in a May 1920 Vanity Fair cartoon”). During the mid-20th-century growth of the suburbs, “the car enslaved women even as it liberated them,” according to Nichols, with cars becoming yet another tool for accomplishing housework. Today, niche marketing and identity interact in unpredictable ways—she points to Subaru’s popularity among lesbians as an example. Throughout, Nichols interweaves meticulous and intriguing research into engineering and advertising history with poignant reflections on how automobiles have played an outsize role in her own family: an uncle killed in a car accident, an alcoholic father who was a used car salesman, time spent driving herself and her son for cancer treatment. Marked by the author’s keen eye for detail and irony alike, this perceptive study will compel readers to reevaluate their own relationship with cars. (Mar.)

The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle

Anna Shechtman. HarperOne, $29.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-063-27547-8
Shechtman, a crossword compiler for the New York Times and the New Yorker, debuts with a rigorous yet fleet-footed exploration of the crossword puzzle’s feminist legacy. Profiling four women pivotal to the crossword’s evolution—Ruth Hale, Margaret Farrar, Julia Penelope, and Ruth von Phul—Shechtman tracks the crossword from its 1913 invention, through its rising popularity in the 1920s and ’30s, to its eventual widespread adoption by newspapers and magazines. Noting that women were long the primary creators of crosswords, Shechtman explains how the rise of computer technology that transformed the way crossword constructors work has led to the field being taken over in recent decades by men. Pairing this history with a ruminative memoir that chronicles both her love for crossword construction and her youthful struggles with anorexia, Shechtman draws effortlessly on feminist theory and psychoanalysis to ultimately make the astute observation that both her eating disorder and her crossword-constructing habit stem from a need for control—of the body and language. Throughout, Shechtman investigates how gender, race, and politics affect crosswords, though her self-analyzing narrative often pushes back against this line of inquiry (“The question risks a double embarrassment: trivializing the serious stuff of politics or, maybe worse, taking trivialities too seriously”). By turns incisive and roving, this teases out hidden connections and forgotten histories that will enthrall readers. (Mar.)