My latest book: “Hancher vs. Hilton”

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 28, 2016

Front cover of Hancher vs. HiltonI have completed a third book, “officially” released today.

This is the story of a largely forgotten chapter in the rivalry between Iowa’s two largest universities, the U of Iowa and (my alma mater) Iowa State U. The stars are Iowa president Virgil Hancher, and Iowa State president James Hilton; the plot is their struggle for prestige, resources and influence on the shape of higher education in Iowa during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The interest, I hope, is a combination of

  1. alumni & fans’ curiosity about a very different era in what is today mostly an athletics-based rivalry
  2. meeting the real individuals behind the iconic “Hancher” arts center and “Hilton” college basketball phenomenon
  3. the intrigue of an administrative political war that made many headlines in its day, but got even more heated in never-before-published memos and other discoveries during my research.

One letter turned up in that research, from University of Rochester president C.W. DeKiewiet to Hancher, summarizes the nature of Hancher vs. Hilton quite well: “Academic men quarrel as readily as men in other sectors of society. Since they persuade themselves more easily that they are standing up for a principle, they can be vigorous and sometimes cruel combatants.”

Read more at mattkuhns.com/hancher-vs-hilton

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‘Paddington’ Pollaky, the book

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Aug 6, 2015

I recently acquired a copy of the first major study of one of our heroes since Brilliant Deduction‘s publication. Published just this year, ‘Paddington’ Pollaky Private Detective by Bryan Kesselman is the first dedicated biography of this most mysterious of mystery men. How did he do? How did I do?

Short answer, ‘Paddington’ Pollaky is a stupendous achievement in research. For the Pollaky fan base—which I know does exist, however modest its numbers—this biography is a must. Some of the remarkable nuggets that Kesselman has unearthed are astonishing just for their simple existence:

  • Evidence and names of Pollaky’s agents
  • An interview with Pollaky
  • A photograph of Ignatius Pollaky

Colossal. Add to this extensive correspondence and other archival information, as well as many intriguing new questions which it had not even occurred to ask, before. Was Pollaky’s emigration from Austria-Hungary a flight from political persecution related to the uprisings of 1848? Did he seek—or perhaps even gain—American citizenship before settling in Britain? Was he supplying information to Bismarck’s government in the Franco-Prussian war, thereby earning the German Ritterkreutz?

Read more…

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Parker, ghosts, television

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 4, 2015

Recently I happened to see a bit of a show called Ghost Stories, while I was at the YMCA, and was intrigued by one segment about the Burlington County prison. As this brought the show’s cameras to Mount Holly, New Jersey, I wondered whether the local crime fighter who sent  many felons to said jail would be mentioned.

I didn’t get to catch the rest of the segment, though, so I have no idea whether or not it included any reference to Ellis Parker. Subsequent looking around online suggests that you can however go to the old prison, now a museum, and hear a good deal about Parker there. From the Weird New Jersey site: “Another character to have made his mark in Burlington’s, and New Jersey’s, history was the excellent detective Ellis H. Parker—who sounds like a Sherlock Holmes. Mike Reilly, chief guide at the museum, can fill you in on the details of Parker’s exciting life.”

As, of course, can Parker biographer John Reisinger… This might be a good time to mention that at some point, perhaps a year or two ago, the entertaining Mysteries at the Museum show also visited Burlington County Prison for a segment specifically featuring Parker. They interviewed Reisinger, and while I have never seen the episode he has written about the experience at his web site.

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San Francisco historic crimes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 30, 2014

Here’s something neat; I received an e-mail recently from Mr. Paul Drexler, who operates a web site and tour organization featuring historic crimes in the Bay City. As a relatively rare instance of the tomorrow-fixated town recalling otherwise little-remembered figures like Isaiah Lees, I commend the effort.

The Crooks Tour web site also includes a blog, with a recent post noting a significant connection to one of Lees’s great cases that I either missed or forgot. In Brilliant Deduction, I outlined Lees’s direction of the grueling manhunt for fugitive banker Joe Duncan… but I somehow missed the fact that Duncan was the father of Isadora Duncan. Something else to note if I ever prepare a revised edition.

Meanwhile, if anyone is in San Francisco looking for a tour a bit outside the usual itinerary, here you go.

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My new book: Cotton’s Library

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 17, 2014

I have written another book, and it’s officially released today! I hope you’ll check out Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History.Front cover

Where Brilliant Deduction looked into real detectives who are (now) much less famous than fictional counterparts, Cotton’s Library looks into a priceless historic collection much less famous than individual items within it.

The highlights of this collection include some of the most important documents of Anglophone civilization: the sole manuscript sources of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two of four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, and the masterfully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. The English antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton brought all of these together around 400 years ago, along with thousands of other historic documents.

Yet Cotton and his collection remain relatively little-known despite the renown of many individual items in his library, as well as a story both during and after Sir Robert’s time that almost defies belief. Cotton served time as a prisoner in the Tower of London twice, on dubious charges concealing royal discomfort with the library’s prominence among political critics. King Charles I ordered the library itself locked up in 1629; it remained sealed when its brokenhearted founder expired two years later.

Through the centuries that followed, war, neglect, fires, corrupt library-keepers and later collectors’ poaching all threatened the collection’s ruin repeatedly.

With some tragic exceptions, though, the Cotton library has survived them all. The story of its often narrow escapes is a tribute to unsung heroes of history, beginning with Cotton and continuing into the modern era. Their collective efforts to preserve the library’s great treasures for posterity, set against the sweep of history from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, form an epic worthy of James Michener, all of it real.

You can read a free excerpt here. I hope you’ll take a look!

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Chicago Art Institute surprise

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Sep 17, 2014

Expect an announcement or two around here, soon, about a new book. Meanwhile, a brief note related to Brilliant Deduction. Last weekend I was in Chicago, and visited The Art Institute among other attractions. While there, I was surprised to glance across a gallery and see this familiar image:

The Elaine, displayed at Chicago Art Institute

By Toby Rosenthal

I’m sure I’ve read at some point or other that The Elaine, briefly stolen in the 19th century before its recovery by Isaiah Lees, is today at the Art Institute. I had not given it any thought, however, so discovering it unexpectedly was a delightful bit of serendipity. The accompanying text panel makes no note of the painting’s adventure or the hero thereof, whose own portrait was once displayed alongside The Elaine

But we know.

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Unsolved robbery finally solved?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 3, 2014

You may have seen something recently about a California couple finding $10 million in gold. I saw the headlines, but didn’t read into it in any great detail. Then, today, I saw this headline: SF heist at turn of century may explain buried gold.

Something about this intrigued me, and as I read into the story, I recalled what it was. $30,000 (per its original face value) in coins that someone around San Francisco wanted to hide, a long time back…? Why, yes, I’ve read about something much like that.

The San Francisco Mint robbery investigated by William Burns.

I didn’t write about this case at length in Brilliant Deduction, honestly. With Burns, more than almost anyone else I covered, I was really spoiled for choice; in order to go into depth on any cases I had to pick and choose, and the mint robbery was among those cases that got a brief mention only. It was an interesting episode, though, involving impressive work by Burns. He eventually pinned the job on a mint employee, Walter Dimmick, who received a relatively short sentence after two trials ended in hung juries… Perhaps in part because no one ever found the loot.

Until now, perhaps. I see that another item from a few days ago has already considered this theory along with others, and concluded maybe yes, maybe no.

Still, the possibility alone is wild. Meanwhile, for anyone curious, as I recall the best account of Burns’s investigation of the mint robbery was in The Incredible Detective by Gene Caesar.

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Vidocq among the Parisians

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 19, 2014

I recently finished Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris. A few impressions:

“Files of the Sûreté,” a chapter on Vidocq, was my main motivation in checking this one out. It’s interesting reading. Robb’s portrait of Vidocq is different from my own; some quality of the con artist is nearly indispensable for a confidential agent, but Robb suggests a bit more of the former than I did. One particular vignette within the chapter, “The Case of the Yellow Curtains,” was also of particular interest because I also wrote about the same case in Brilliant Deduction, but Robb focused almost entirely on parts of the story I trimmed out, and vice versa.

Based on his notes, Robb used most of the same sources I did. Being fluent in French, he brought in one or two French works as well as an undoubtedly superior background in French history than I did; on the other hand, I read more widely into the history of detection and was probably better prepared to examine Vidocq within that context. In the end, I didn’t really find any significant incompatibility between the Vidocq in Parisians and my own sketch. The bottom line is that Vidocq was an intentionally chimeric figure. Even within a single account, I think that accurately depicting the “real” Vidocq means recognizing that there wasn’t any single, monolithic “truth” to him. As Robb writes, “So many murky tales are attached to Vidocq’s name that he seems to hover over nineteenth-century Paris like a phantom… The exact truth of these and other tales is almost impossible to separate from the mass of rumour and misinformation.”

For those interested in Vidocq, I think Parisians is largely optional reading, meanwhile. The most notable feature from this perspective is probably in the illustrations, which include a splendid cartoon of Vidocq in his office, drawn by Honoré Daumier in 1836. I had not seen this before, and given that no photos of the great detective are known, publication of any additional image is well worthwhile. Otherwise, though, “Files of the Sûreté” is about 18 pages long, and doesn’t contain much that other sources don’t cover, usually in greater detail. As for the other 370-some pages… I found Parisians very hit-or-miss.

I got through the whole thing, which is more than can be said of Robb’s Discovery of France. Which, it should be said, was critically acclaimed while I’m just some jerk with one self-published book and a blog or two, so one may take or leave my criticisms  for whatever they’re worth. That having been said, sometimes Parisians was fantastic, and sometimes it was a slog. Robb approached each chapter with a different, and sometimes wildly different, approach, and while I applaud the spirit of experimentation, I found that many of the individual experiments as well as the whole thing didn’t really work for me. Also, it’s worth noting for anyone else who might care, passive voice is used* with needless frequency throughout the work, and personally I found this a near constant annoyance.

Again, though, grammatical choices aside, this included some excellent chapters, and in all honesty there are a lot of histories of Paris already; trying something different is going to involve risk… which in this instance I don’t think paid off very well… but if you aren’t trying something different, writing yet another Paris history is probably not an especially worthwhile exercise in the first place.

* This is me making a joke.

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Happy New Year

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 1, 2014

My book Brilliant Deduction has been around for about one year, at this point; there wasn’t really a single “release date” except for formal purposes. It’s been a gratifying year, as I’ve written already. One thing I haven’t noted, though, is the interesting geographic range that my little project has traveled.

Thanks to the marvelous worldcat.org site, one can find library copies of just about any title, sorted by proximity to wherever the site thinks you are. As of today, searching Brilliant Deduction turns up records in 16 libraries. This is not a lot, but it’s fascinating that my words have gone so many places, many of which I’ve never been personally. It can even be found, so the site claims at least, (approximately) 3,000 miles away from me in Wasilla, Alaska. How about that?

Presumably there are more library copies out there, too, as worldcat.org does not seem to list the Lakewood Public Library’s Brilliant Deduction holdings, and I know they have three.

Meanwhile, I have begun writing a second book. Completely different subject matter, but it will be good. Trust me. I completed Part One of Three the day before Christmas, and while it will certainly need a lot of work, I’m making real progress.

Have a great 2014.

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The Best Christmas Present Ever

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 2, 2013

The concept of “Cyber Monday” as a calendar event is thoroughly silly by this point… but taking advantage of a timely sale is not. Starting today, Brilliant Deduction is available at 25% off the regular price in hardcover and paperback through the end of 2013. Brand-shiny-new copies direct from lulu.com, which will likely be offering additional promotions of its own throughout. For good measure, they have holiday shipping deadlines posted, too.

In addition to its many other great qualities praised by independent reviewers, Brilliant Deduction is a much much better gift than a car. Among various other reasons it’s much easier to fit under a typical Christmas tree.

If you really have to show off, for that matter, contact me about getting a personalized signed copy of my book. Also a much better gift than a car.

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