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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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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Island mentality at ITV

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 2, 2013

I was all set to watch The Murder in Angle Lane, finally, last night. I registered at itv.com, confirmed my registration, and everything seemed ready to go. I went off to make dinner musing rapturously on this wonderful networked age with its seamless availability of so much great content, etc., etc…

Then I sat down to hit “play” and ran smack into the old-fashioned world of barriers and petty fiefdoms.

Having gone through registration, and confirmation, I was only then at the point of playing a video prompted for a “postcode,” i.e. a British postcode. And even this was disingenuous because what their system really demands is not a British address but a British IP address. They don’t seem to provide any kind of notice in their promotional material that their service is geographically firewalled, they don’t point this out when one tries to sign up for it, either, but if one digs around in the FAQ eventually one may find a very quiet advisory that “We do not hold international rights to all of our programming, so video content is supplied only to users with IP addresses in the UK.”

I can’t exactly blame ITV for the underlying reality, here; the persistence of this obsolete concept of slicing up content distribution into geographic partitions, even when content is being distributed on a global network, is much larger than ITV. (See the scam known as Region Coding, e.g.) Still, one would think that they could at least communicate their service’s resultant unavailability to approximately ninety-nine percent of the online population a little bit more efficiently…

One is reminded of the oft-recited (if perhaps apocryphal) British newspaper headline: “Fog in Channel, Continent Isolated.”

Meanwhile, short of going to Britain to watch the movie there, I’m not sure what my next step is; officially, the only alternative is presumably “wait until someone gets around to authorizing your backwater outpost to see this content.” I’ve taken a quick look online and there are, naturally, means of subverting this attempted subversion of the inherent nature of the internet, through technical and presumably illegal jiggery-pokery of some sort… Not sure I feel like bothering right now, really.

As they say on ESPN, “Come on, man.”

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Jack Whicher returns on ITV

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 10, 2013

Programming notice: the estimable Mister Whicher will return to television Sunday, May 12 in The Murder in Angel Lane on ITV. For those who actually have ITV as part of a television subscription package, it runs from 8 to 10 pm, presumably British Summer Time. (Making it 3 to 5 pm for American Eastern Daylight Time, I believe.)

I think just about anyone with just about any internet connected device should be able to access the show thereafter, though. I’ve not done it before, but that’s the impression I get from the ITV site. I will certainly try to view the Mister Whicher sequel somehow, and reference to a “free 30-day catch-up” seems promising.

Watch this space.

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Great photos of great detectives, no. 4

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 3, 2013

You’ll have to go offsite for this one*, but it’s well worth a look: the only known surviving photo of Jonathan Whicher.**

It’s a novel artifact, beyond just Whicher’s appearance in it. The photo is an example of the carte de visite format, once an internationally popular means of swapping images in the dark ages long before Twitter or Hipstagram, but now nearly forgotten. The composition and style seems strange: despite the small format of the image, the “frame” is pulled back some ways from Whicher, who appears in some sort of large country house backdrop. Whicher himself, rather than facing the camera, gazes off at something to his left with an expression of utter insouciance.

Perhaps the only regular instance of a similar style, in our own era, is the staged high school senior picture… but then, these are probably also one of the few surviving legacies of the carte de visite phenomenon, too. (Or were, as of the mid-1990s; it would not surprise me if these are going the way of the yearbook as young people just stick with social networking sites instead.)

The Whicher portrait is credited to Powell of Charing Cross, who has something of an interesting background himself; in the updated edition of Suspicions of Mr. Whicher that includes this photo, Kate Summerscale relates a bit of Powell’s story, as well.

All told, meanwhile, the survival of this photo of Whicher is remarkably fortunate, as well as a reminder that Whicher really was a figure of some note; it’s worth recalling that this photo is from a time not long after the President of the United States could serve one full term and part of another and leave behind scarcely 130 photos…

* This photo appears in Brilliant Deduction, but only under a limited license, so I’ve not posted it anywhere on the web site.

** One may read of, or even see an image purported to be, a second photograph of Mr. Whicher. Without going into details that it may not be my place to reveal, I will say only that I have very, very good reason to believe that any such claims are inaccurate.

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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…

Read more…

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Mr. Whicher, the Prequel

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 5, 2013

Last night I finished up The Dagenham Murder, the story of a Victorian police constable’s mysterious and violent death and its investigation by, among others, our estimable Mr. Whicher. Quite enjoyed the work. I’ve posted a book review at Goodreads, but I also want to note a few things from the perspective of my own little project.

First, commendable research by the authors. Having performed a limited amount of real, primary-source Victorian-era archival research for Brilliant Deduction—mostly in trying to reconstruct the life of Whicher’s contemporary “Paddington” Pollaky—I have a deep appreciation and respect for what Rhodes, Shelden and Abnett accomplished. They bring to life more than a dozen people, most of them humble figures without anything like the press coverage trail available for Pollaky, aside from their involvement in this one sensational crime and its aftermath.

Meanwhile, I was nonetheless especially interested in one of the few individuals with notoriety beyond the context of the Dagenham case, i.e. Jack Whicher. For those who share my interest, The Dagenham Murder is a must-read. Whicher’s role in the story is limited, but significant, certainly in the context of his own career. His investigation into George Clark’s murder, with its many similarities and curious differences compared to the Road Murder investigation that rerouted his career years later, offers almost limitless material for interpretation and speculation. Other little details also enrich the picture of Whicher and his work, including contextual history such as how detection in Australia (relevant to The Tichborne Affair, the great case of Whicher’s PI career) compared with the British analogue, as well as personal notes such as those revealed by Whicher’s last will. (For those interested, The Dagenham Murder is available via Amazon.)

Read more…

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Received goods: The Dagenham Murder

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 4, 2013

Since publishing my book, I have made the wonderful discovery that a project that started with what I could find has also become about what finds me. Already, a couple of correspondents have found their way to this site and shared related material. One example is The Dagenham Murder.

Copies of The Dagenham Murder, plus brochure

Recently arrived via Royal Mail

One of the authors contacted me, prompted by my inclusion of Jonathan Whicher in Brilliant Deduction, to tell me about this book; it recounts the story of an 1840s murder investigation, still unsolved. Then-Sergeant Whicher was part of the small, early Scotland Yard force that tried to resolve the mystery.

I do wish I had known about this six months or a year ago, but obviously one is going to miss some things. And then, it seems, learn of a few of them after one publishes. One good reason for having a companion site with a blog, then; at least I have a good way of making further discoveries like this available.

I hope to get started reading The Dagenham Murder, soon, and once I’ve finished I will post some additional notes here. In the meantime, for those interested, it seems to be available through Amazon UK; the author is also selling some remaining copies and, if all else fails, you can contact me and I will get you in touch.

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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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Inspector Whicher and the green biro

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 28, 2013

A few years ago a modern English detective published an exceptional blog, for a time, called NightJack. It was fantastic stuff; it won the Orwell Prize and while I only heard about it after it had essentially finished, I’ve read the whole thing more than once.

I also found myself recalling some of NightJack‘s comments about the realities of policing a year or so later, while reading about one of his earliest predecessors, Jonathan Whicher. Despite a gulf of 150 years between them, I suspect that England’s first Detective Jack and one of its more recent could readily commiserate about certain hazards of the job.

Life as an English detective, 1851 (from Brilliant Deduction):

…after nearly a decade observing London’s criminal fraternity come and go, Sergeant Whicher immediately recognized two men stopping for a chat near the London & Westminster Bank. One was a familiar ex-con, returned from an involuntary sojourn in Australia; the fellow joining him on a bench facing the bank was “another old lag.” Whicher and a colleague kept up observation of the pair, who spent the following weeks absorbed in their own surveillance of the bank’s schedules and security. When the would-be bank robbers, confident of their preparation, finally moved on the bank on June 18, they were completely surprised by police lying in wait and their attempt to escape on foot was easily foiled. The result of Whicher’s keen observation and patience: letters to The Times criticizing this reckless, inefficient and entirely unsporting approach.

Life as an English detective, 2008 (from NightJack):

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, there are a certain number of letters received by public bodies each year that are written in green biro. When you see that green biro writing, it is almost certain that the communication will be a pointless rant of epic proportions and usually anonymous.

Read more…

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