Runners-up: Raymond Schindler

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 14, 2013

As I recall I was some ways into my research when I first took notice of Raymond Schindler. Most likely I first encountered reference to this man as a detective of note in researching William Burns; I believe one or other of Burns’s biographers note that the team he employed in the massive San Francisco corruption investigation included Schindler, who later established a legend of his own in detection history.

I may have found one or two other references to Schindler, also, but I certainly recall that he turned up in Eugene Block’s Famous Detectives, one of the few examples of anything similar to Brilliant Deduction which I was able to turn up. As I also recall, and as their web site confirms, this 55-year-old work has been relegated to the Cleveland Public Library’s off-site storage and had to be specially requested when I consulted it. Still, per the very premise of my book, dusty obscurity hardly disqualifies a detective for having been one of the field’s greats. And it’s quite possible that Mr. Schindler might be a worthy peer for the nine men featured in Brilliant Deduction. Not only did he make it into Block’s survey, but he has a book of his own, The complete detective: Being the life and strange and exciting cases of Raymond Schindler, master detective. That’s more than Pollaky can say. More than William Pinkerton or his brother Robert can say.

Even so, this even older (1950) tome does not seem to be among any of the local libraries’ many works attributed to a Hughes, Rupert. This being 2012, I certainly could have looked further afield to acquire a copy, very possibly without even leaving home; used copies appear to be available and inexpensive. Nonetheless, I have not done so, for what I feel is a reasonable excuse, at least in context.

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Runners-up: Thomas Byrnes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 19, 2013

One claimant for “great detective” who didn’t quite make my final nine does, nonetheless, have his own biography, certainly a respectable consolation given the rare company this places him in among detectives. Neither “Paddington” Pollaky, nor either of the Pinkerton brothers, has a biography of his own yet. But Thomas F. Byrnes, who rose to direct New York City’s police for 15 years, does.

The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective by J. North Conway chronicles Byrnes’s lively career. Given that I was trying to write a book about great detectives, I could hardly pass it up.

My impression of Byrnes is that he was almost the ultimate expression, the purest and most prominent example, of the brutal 19th-century Irish cop keeping order in the big northern city through regular application of violence to those communities he judged as troublemakers. It’s a stereotype, of course. But I’m guessing that a number of such Mick flatfoots did indeed walk the beat. Byrnes, aside from his avoidance of strong drink, comes across as the most canny of their number, risen to the top of the profession. He was unquestionably an impressive operator.

But that isn’t quite the same as a great detective—and in my view Byrnes doesn’t even rate honorable mention in that category. Book titles, of course, are not always the author’s responsibility, but regardless of whoever chose that of The Big Policeman I’m going to declare it at least two-thirds groundless ballyhoo.

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Runners-up: Alphonse Bertillon

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 2, 2013

The case for considering Alphonse Bertillon in an examination of great detectives, and the reason for excluding him from my eventual final nine, are both neatly expressed in a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognize that I am myself an unpractical man, and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—’

‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be first?’ asked Holmes, with some asperity.

‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.’

‘Then had you better not consult him?’

‘I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone.’

Just so: among the broad universe of criminology, Alphonse Bertillon is absolutely a major figure, but, within criminology’s more practical sphere, i.e. detection, Bertillon cannot be ranked with either Sherlock Holmes or his real-life counterparts because Bertillon was not a practicing detective.

Even so, one encounters Bertillon’s name consistently in studying the early history of detection, and with good reason. Bertillon was more a theorist, or perhaps a technician, but as such he was unquestionably an important influence on the profession.

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Runners-up: James McParland

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 28, 2012

Nine detectives made the final cut for Brilliant Deduction. I think they represent a good effort at answering the question that began it all, i.e. “who are the greatest detectives ever outside of fiction?” Collectively, they represent a few of the various possible interpretations of “great detective,” they provide a good survey of the whole era of real-life famous detectives from its beginning to its closing days, and I suspect that if nothing else most of the strongest candidates for the most amazing individual detective, ever, are included.

I won’t claim for a minute that it’s a comprehensive list, though. It wasn’t intended to be, both for the purpose of a tighter narrative, and because (as is the more or less the book’s very raison d’être) the work of detectives has become quite obscure compared with what it once was. I make no bones about the fact that my selection was influenced by whom I could find the most information on. As demonstrated by the career of “Paddington” Pollaky, the one major character in Brilliant Deduction who lacks even a single biography, piecing together the affairs of a private investigator is a formidable challenge. And Pollaky was an exceptionally well-known PI, at least once! I can’t disprove that even better detectives than my cast may exist, but finding enough information to tell their stories is, at least, a task for a more able researcher than I.

All that having been said, the final nine of Brilliant Deduction were by no means the only detectives I considered in evaluating greatness. From time to time I plan on posting a bit about the “runners-up,” and I’ll begin with James McParland.

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