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?
For anyone with an interest in Pollaky, this new work is, again, unmissable. As I belong to this category myself, I can only speculate on what it has to offer a reader new to its subject; I suspect, however, that it will be somewhat less compelling.
A narrative flow is absent from much of ‘Paddington’ Pollaky. Long sections consist of block quotes alternating with brief comments, over and over. Some will probably find this more accessible than others. Having engaged more in primary source research, myself, in the past two or three years, I appreciate the fascination of such “finds” and the temptation to share them all, word for word. At the same time, I suspect that most readers of a finished book experience these choice excerpts differently from the researcher discovering them in context.
Editorial esthetics aside, the content of ‘Paddington’ Pollaky also makes it clear that in this instance, alternatives were limited. Quite simply, even with Kesselman’s dogged research and impressive discoveries, the traces of Pollaky’s life just don’t appear adequate to create a book-length narrative story, without making so many assumptions that the results would strain the boundaries of non-fiction.
Kesselman has elected instead to give us his findings, then comment on their significance and openly acknowledge what conclusions they support and what questions they leave unanswered. These are many and sometimes very basic. When was Pollaky born? How and when did he first arrive in Britain? What’s the newspaper for which Pollaky repeatedly claimed to have been a long-time correspondent? (None of the names which Pollaky himself gave provide a certain match with any known periodical.)
Within these limitations, a fair sense of the life and person of Ignatius Pollaky does emerge. The picture in ‘Paddington’ Pollaky is decidedly more complete than any other, to date—and given Kesselman’s efforts it seems unlikely to be bettered any time soon, if ever.
This said, in re-evaluating previous studies including my own, this book feels mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For the dedicated enthusiast, as noted, the new information stands out as wondrous; I have the feeling that from a more removed perspective the whole is not greatly different from or more complete than what came before.
I should acknowledge that ‘Paddington’ Pollaky definitely reveals not only omissions, but outright errors, in Brilliant Deduction.* My conclusion that these are on the whole minor, therefore, should be evaluated with the influence of self-regard kept in mind.
That is, all the same, my conclusion. I don’t feel like we know Pollaky dramatically better now than we did a year ago. Better, yes, just as Brilliant Deduction was a better introduction to Pollaky than his Wikipedia entry, which was a better introduction than Vaughan Drydon’s 1934 newspaper feature. Yet looking back I’m not sure that any of us has really found a terribly different result than that 1,300-word feature from 81 years ago. More detail, and now more scholarly rigor, but in a sense all of this seems to be touching up the edges of a portrait with a large hole in the middle of it. The hole remains. Through stalwart effort, Bryan Kesselman has recovered some fragments of what that hole contained. But the hole is still there, and seems destined to remain there. Pollaky destroyed his papers; other archives have told us what they can, and Kesselman’s exertions seem to confirm that not much more can ever be squeezed out of them.
* None so substantial that I’m going to rush out a revised edition, if that’s any indication, though if ever I do prepare a revised edition the chapter on Pollaky will certainly incorporate this new scholarship. That said, it will likely be many years before the first edition is paid for, on which basis funding a revised edition will be a low priority for the time being.