William J. Burns returns (again)

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 20, 2013

I don’t know whether there’s any kind of genuine “comeback” in progress, for the great real-life detectives, or I’m simply noticing mentions of them now and that’s all. But whatever the context, I was interested to see a familiar face at The Atlantic today, accompanying an article by Benjamin Welton titled The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes.’

Executive summary and disclosure of the obvious: 1) the story is basically a brief survey of Burns’s career and musing on how its derailing contrasts with the continued popularity of  great-detective fiction, 2) I wrote about all of this at somewhat greater length in a recent book you may have heard of, and 3) nowhere is anything mentioned about the previous point in Welton’s article.

It’s certainly plausible that despite having plainly done a good deal of reading about Bill Burns, Mr. Welton has never heard of my own book, and that I simply need a better publicist. (Self: as soon as I can find someone who will work cheaper, you’re fired.) That said, I shall trust that the same benefit of the doubt will apply to the following supplementary footnotes, and that any resemblance to irritable sniping will be understood as entirely coincidental.

Going down the article from the start, off the top of my head I would point out the following (possibly very reasonable and/or editorially imposed) simplifications or other points of contention: Read more…

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New look, old legacy for Pinkertons

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 15, 2013

In the latest chapter of “interesting people and information find you after you publish a book,” I received an e-mail a little while back from today’s Pinkerton agency. This was actually my first contact with the firm; in researching my book there seemed little need to bother them given that 1) aside from a few brief notes about subsequent decades, my examination of the Pinkertons leaves off with William Pinkerton’s death 90 years ago, and 2) most of their surviving early archives have been donated to the Library of Congress.

Still, it’s always fun to receive feedback on my work, and the nice woman who contacted me was very generous in offering to answer questions I might have.

Perhaps the most interesting information I received from this exchange, though, was an indirect tip-off that Pinkerton has updated its web presence. For what my opinion as a designer and amateur historian is worth, the revised site appears highly polished and professional, as well as a more compelling portrait than the government-services-led version online when I was writing my book.

The new history page is an especially thoughtful addition, offering a quick scroll through significant events from Pinkerton’s century and a half story, as well as a selection of interesting photos. A number of these are familiar though a few were not; alas, one particular image of a woman with a highly tantalizing file name is not a genuine contemporary image of the elusive Kate Warne. The image does come with an interesting story, all the same, as it is most likely a sketch created (possibly by this gentleman?) some years ago as part of a television program pitch. Neat, eh?

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Happy birthday, Jack Whicher!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Oct 1, 2013

On this day in 1814: Jonathan Whicher born in Camberwell, England. Happy birthday to “one of the most successful and most unlucky of detectives,” per Scotland Yard historian Douglas Browne.

Big one coming up next year, but, hey: 200 is only a number!

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Happy birthday, Ellis Parker!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Sep 12, 2013

On this day, 142 years ago: Ellis H. Parker born near Wrightstown, New Jersey. Happy birthday, chief Parker! I don’t expect this will actually happen, but I certainly like to imagine that they might raise a toast down at the Elks Club in Mount Holly, this evening, in your honor.

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Happy birthday, Vidocq!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 23, 2013

On this day (probably), 238 years ago: Eugène François Vidocq born in Arras, France. Happy birthday to the inventor of the detective profession and the private detective agency, and the inspiration for countless detective stories real and fictional.

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Happy birthday, Allan Pinkerton!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 21, 2013

On this day, 194 years ago: Allan Pinkerton born in Glasgow, Scotland. Happy birthday to the most famous of many by that name; you may not have been the first Allan Pinkerton (even in your own family), but you’re definitely number one in the history books.

Anyone in Glasgow (or perhaps Chicago) who feels like a 200th birthday commemoration would be appropriate has six whole years to work on it.

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Thanks and have a great summer

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 16, 2013

I would like to say a formal “thank you” to all who have visited this site, or may yet do so, or taken an interest in my modest little project here one way or another. As well as, of course, a special double extra “thank you” to those who have purchased my book and/or shared kind comments in one forum or another.

Thank you.

I am very close to 100 posts on this blog, now; if we guess that the average post is close to 600 words that’s a total of about 60,000. As my book is a bit more than 112,000 words, then even allowing for a lot of ballpark estimating, I have now posted around half as much additional material online for free as the entire content of the book I’m theoretically promoting.

I’m pleased with that. My main purpose in writing Brilliant Deduction was not making money, which is good because at the current pace it will be a long time before the project achieves even a modestly defined profit. Having committed myself to writing and then publishing this work, I decided nonetheless to make a go at promoting it, and in the process have tried a number of things I have rarely if ever done before. I’ve done a good deal of “warm” and even “cold” sales pitching. I’ve sent out a press release. I’ve walked into stores with wares to offer for stock. I’ve spoken to an audience of strangers in a double-bill with a retired FBI agent. I’ve literally set out my stall at an author fair and spent the day meeting and greeting all kinds of visitors (and thanks, too, to everyone who stopped at my table at Author Alley). I’ve even contacted the alumni association with genuinely exciting news about myself for the first time.

It’s been a great ride even though, yeah, sales numbers have been modest. Nice all the same, believe me; I have been thrilled at both the critical and commercial reaction to this out-of-nowhere self-published book!

Read more…

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Allan Pinkerton’s Civil War reputation

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 10, 2013

Front cover of The Hour of PerilI recently finished reading Daniel Stashower’s recent work The Hour of Peril, about Allan Pinkerton and the “Baltimore Plot” against Lincoln. I quite enjoyed his examination of the murder of Mary Rogers in The Beautiful Cigar Girl, and was naturally intrigued by this new title; I’m happy to report that The Hour of Peril exceeded my expectations. Having gone over much of the same territory in my own research, I wasn’t certain how much I would be able to get out of the book but Stashower included an impressive amount of new detail, and not only on the Baltimore Plot. I was surprised and fascinated at how much was new to me about Pinkerton’s early life and first cases; admittedly it’s been a couple of years since I read them, but I made notes on the major studies of Allan Pinkerton and I’m certain that a number of points in The Hour of Peril were absent from all three. On that basis, alone, I can heartily recommend this new volume to anyone interested in learning more about the Pinkertons’ founder.

It’s also, as advertised, a tightly paced but very detailed examination of “The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War,” i.e. the Baltimore Plot.

The general outline of events in The Hour of Peril does, I found with some relief, essentially match up with the very condensed version in Brilliant Deduction. But this expanded account was well worth reading (and not only for Stashower’s effort at restoring a little bit of life to the figure of Kate Warne, commendable as that was). It provides much food for thought about how to interpret the much-debated questions of both the Plot, itself, and Allan Pinkerton’s service to his adopted country in the Civil War.

Read more…

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Further reading in fiction

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 8, 2013

I probably should have done this a while ago. But, better late than never; the other day it occurred to me to post suggested “further reading” about Brilliant Deduction‘s protagonists in fiction. Nearly all of them have inspired some sort of fictional tales, after all, either of themselves or of close analogues.

Vidocq probably leads the list, in every way. His own influential Memoirs are, most likely, at least semi-fictionalized. According to one rumor, in fact, they were mostly the work of his friend Honoré de Balzac, who definitely wrote other fictionalized works inspired by Vidocq. Father Goriot, Lost illusions, and Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life are all available for free in English translation at Project Gutenberg. The same is true of multiple stories of Emile Gaboriau’s detective Lecoq: The Lerouge Case, The Mystery of Orcival, File No. 113, and Monsieur Lecoq. (Et aussi Les Esclaves des Paris, si vous connaissez le français). And, while it may stretch things a bit, it might be worth mentioning Les Miserables if only because Vidocq may have contributed inspiration to both of its main characters…

The Road child murder case investigated by Jonathan Whicher has inspired more than one work of fiction, though to my knowledge Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is the only one to include any significant analogue to Whicher himself (as Sergeant Cuff). Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, whose author Charles Dickens knew Whicher personally, may actually bear more resemblance to Whicher, though. (Even if JW’s colleague Frederick Field was the “official” model for the character.)

I suspect that most of the Pinkerton dynasty’s outings in fiction have taken inspiration from Allan, rather than his children; the only exception I know of is the graphic novel Detective 27, which gives a little space to William though Allan still gets most of the best scenes. Brief searching, meanwhile, also turns up Pinkerton’s Secret: A Novel and Nevermore – a novel of Edgar Allan Poe and Allan Pinkerton.

Read more…

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What is a book for?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 5, 2013

I’m approaching “the end of major combat operations” on this blog, and a bit of a valedictory post about this whole project is on the way… as a bit of a lead-in to that, though, I feel like jotting down a few thoughts about why one writes a book and what purposes it serves.

This was largely prompted by a recent e-mail, informing me of the publication of yet another book in what one might call the “jeremiad” category, i.e. a documentation and lamentation of some or other “wicked problem.” And it occurred to me to wonder, not for the first time, just what the point of these books could be. They generally look like miserable reading, as a result of exploring really depressing situations and, moreover, situations which provide benefit to a small, concentrated and powerful group while spreading costs among much larger but diffuse groups. i.e., situations all the more depressing for the unlikelihood of their being changed, certainly by books that I can’t help suspecting mostly just preach to the already converted. I mean, I certainly don’t shy away from reading about problems of the world, but generally a magazine-length article is about all I want to swallow in one go.

Thinking about it this most recent occasion, though, I had the idea that maybe the point of the book is, in some sense, simply a pretext for getting magazines and talk shows and online news to produce those kinds of briefer stories on the author and his or her cause.

Read more…

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