The San Franciscan Connection

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 29, 2013

San Francisco’s brilliant, long-serving detective Isaiah Lees was well positioned to encounter many of Brilliant Deduction‘s other stars, from a four-dimensional perspective.

Geographically, Lees spent most of his career well outside my book’s largely Atlantic settings. Before the first Transcontinental railroad line was completed with the famous Golden Spike in 1869, California might almost have been as far from London or New York as Australia, so slow and uncertain was crossing North America by land. In the decades after, San Francisco (the fortunate terminus of that first line) was somewhat less isolated, but Lees still worked a long distance from most of his peers, in space.

In time, however, Lees was right in their midst. His police career from 1853 to 1900 spans the busy center of the timeline I drew for my book (some day I’ll post it, along with a properly designed and typeset version). Other than Vidocq, who died a few years after Lees was sworn into the SFPD, and Ellis Parker, who accepted the office of Burlington County detective just six years before Lees retired, the active years of every other detective I’ve profiled overlap considerably with those of Isaiah Lees.

As a result, it’s very tempting to speculate about connections that might have existed, even though there is only one confirmed…

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Brilliant connections

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 31, 2013

The era of renowned detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction lasted close to 150 years. But the individual careers highlighted were spread out through that time, and each overlapped with at least a few others. In many cases, they nonetheless plied their trade in parallel with one another. Geographic distance played a large role in this, of course; crossing North America or the Atlantic Ocean was a loooong trip for much of that time. Direct connections between my main characters are therefore few in number.

Remarkably, however, nearly every one of them had some direct contact with at least one of his peers.

Vidocq is one of the two outliers in my history; he was so far ahead of everyone else in the pursuit of professionalized detection that his career was winding up as others were just getting started. But he made up for it by living quite a long time. As a result he was able to see other nations set up detective bureaus inspired by his Sûreté, such as Scotland Yard in neighboring Britain, and even to enjoy some of the acclaim owed him for it when Scotland Yard officers visited Paris and then hosted him in London, later.

I’m almost certain that this second event must have involved some sort of meeting between Vidocq and Jonathan Whicher. I don’t have any information stating specifically that they met, but beyond that, it seems almost impossible that they wouldn’t have. Whicher was one of Scotland Yard’s original eight detectives in 1842, and the force hadn’t grown much when Vidocq paid them a visit just a few years later. The image is appealing, as a kind of passing-the-baton moment between the first of this new breed of investigator and one of his first prominent successors (Whicher’s life and detective career are the next-earliest after Vidocq’s, out of my final nine). But it is, as noted, speculation.

The same goes for any contact between Whicher and “Paddington” Pollaky, though here, too, the circumstantial evidence is considerable and likely even greater than that for the earlier perhaps-meeting. Whicher and Pollaky worked alongside one another as detectives in London for 30 years, from Pollaky’s arrival in Britain to Whicher’s retirement—nearly the whole length of Pollaky’s own career. Before setting up his own Private Inquiry Office, Pollaky regularly worked as an interpreter for the police and courts, and also spent a few years working for the private detective firm of Charles Field; Field was a former Scotland Yard detective, himself, and a good friend of Whicher. Pollaky even had a minor role in the aftermath of Whicher’s most infamous case, the Road child murder, most likely at Field’s behest. While the two detectives’ parts in that affair probably did not overlap, it seems inconceivable that they didn’t meet at least once in some other circumstance given their overlapping circles of acquaintances and the length of time involved.

That’s mostly it for direct contact involving any of my European cast members… there were opportunities for some of the American detectives to meet their Old World peers, but much less evidence they did so. I’ll return to that in another post.

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Baltimore 1861: Lincoln, Pinkerton, and Burns?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 29, 2013

One of my favorite fictional detective works is the 1990s NBC series, Homicide. Though in fact it was originally based on a nonfiction work of the same name by David Simon, also about Baltimore homicide detectives (and also excellent).

More than 130 years before Pembleton, G, Crosetti, et al., Baltimore also played host to a couple of notable events in the history of their real-life predecessors. Events that are all the more interesting for their strange juxtaposition in that particular place and time…

In January and February of 1861, the founder of the legendary Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was deep in the midst of what history records as The Baltimore Plot. In Allan Pinkerton’s mind, at least, this was a clear, present and very real danger to the life of president-elect Abraham Lincoln; per subsequent criticism it was an imaginary bogeyman threat born of empty rumor and Pinkerton’s overcautiousness (and/or self-promotional hyperbole). I recorded my own assessment in the book, but regardless of what The Baltimore Plot was not, it was a significant and memorable episode in the history of one of the most accomplished detectives in history, tied to the city of Baltimore in early 1861.

Which represents a fascinating coincidence given the other event in Baltimore, in early 1861, of enormous significance in the history of a celebrated American detective.

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