Mr. Whicher movies

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 16, 2021

I finally got to see a couple of the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher movies, recently, during a two-person quarantine pod with a relative who has streaming services.

I watched two and three out of four:

  • The Murder in Angel Lane
  • Beyond the Pale

I liked them both! Not sure how much more insight I can offer than that. I decided to skip movie one, about the Road murder, since I know the story backward and forward from researching Brilliant Deduction. For all I know the others are largely or entirely fictional—if there’s a basis in actual Whicher investigations I don’t recall coming across them—but they are splendid entertainment.

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“Girl in Disguise” book

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 28, 2019

“Kate Warne is one of the most interesting people we know almost nothing about,” Greer Macallister writes in the afterward to Girl in Disguise. I would agree. We know that Warne not only created and led the original “number one ladies’ detective agency” for the intensely demanding Allan Pinkerton, in an era generations before any real advances toward women’s equality; indeed, Warne was so far ahead that Pinkerton’s itself backslid and dispensed with women detectives after she and Allan passed from the scene.

Beyond this, we know some things about Warne’s too-brief professional career, but almost nothing about Warne personally.

Macallister uses fiction to compensate for this shortcoming in Girl in Disguise. I found the exercise well worthwhile.

As a novel, it’s very satisfying. As an attempt to imagine a fully realized person who could have been Mrs. Warne, it’s a success. Some of the other characters are more two-dimensional, but Warne seems like flesh, blood and soul.

A welcome addition to “Great Detectives in Fiction.”

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The Story of Jerome Caminada

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 25, 2019

True crime and policework fans may want to check out The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada.

Angela Buckley’s 2014 biography of Caminada reviews the full career of a 19th-century Manchester detective, whose accomplishments are certainly worth noting here. I confess that I didn’t find it the most riveting reading, but that’s probably a result of this being familiar territory after my research for Brilliant Deduction, and of being very distracted these days. (I turn a lot to escapist literature and pop nonfiction.)

The title is, I should caution, probably a selling point. Caminada has little direct connection with Sherlock Holmes, and to be honest his career didn’t seem exactly rich with mystery solving either.

But he is a figure well worth this biography, and Buckley deserves credit for researching and telling his story.

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My latest book: “Hancher vs. Hilton”

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 28, 2016

Front cover of Hancher vs. HiltonI have completed a third book, “officially” released today.

This is the story of a largely forgotten chapter in the rivalry between Iowa’s two largest universities, the U of Iowa and (my alma mater) Iowa State U. The stars are Iowa president Virgil Hancher, and Iowa State president James Hilton; the plot is their struggle for prestige, resources and influence on the shape of higher education in Iowa during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The interest, I hope, is a combination of

  1. alumni & fans’ curiosity about a very different era in what is today mostly an athletics-based rivalry
  2. meeting the real individuals behind the iconic “Hancher” arts center and “Hilton” college basketball phenomenon
  3. the intrigue of an administrative political war that made many headlines in its day, but got even more heated in never-before-published memos and other discoveries during my research.

One letter turned up in that research, from University of Rochester president C.W. DeKiewiet to Hancher, summarizes the nature of Hancher vs. Hilton quite well: “Academic men quarrel as readily as men in other sectors of society. Since they persuade themselves more easily that they are standing up for a principle, they can be vigorous and sometimes cruel combatants.”



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‘Paddington’ Pollaky, the book

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Aug 6, 2015

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?

Read more…

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Parker, ghosts, television

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 4, 2015

Recently I happened to see a bit of a show called Ghost Stories, while I was at the YMCA, and was intrigued by one segment about the Burlington County prison. As this brought the show’s cameras to Mount Holly, New Jersey, I wondered whether the local crime fighter who sent  many felons to said jail would be mentioned.

I didn’t get to catch the rest of the segment, though, so I have no idea whether or not it included any reference to Ellis Parker. Subsequent looking around online suggests that you can however go to the old prison, now a museum, and hear a good deal about Parker there. From the Weird New Jersey site: “Another character to have made his mark in Burlington’s, and New Jersey’s, history was the excellent detective Ellis H. Parker—who sounds like a Sherlock Holmes. Mike Reilly, chief guide at the museum, can fill you in on the details of Parker’s exciting life.”

As, of course, can Parker biographer John Reisinger… This might be a good time to mention that at some point, perhaps a year or two ago, the entertaining Mysteries at the Museum show also visited Burlington County Prison for a segment specifically featuring Parker. They interviewed Reisinger, and while I have never seen the episode he has written about the experience at his web site.

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San Francisco historic crimes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 30, 2014

Here’s something neat; I received an e-mail recently from Mr. Paul Drexler, who operates a web site and tour organization featuring historic crimes in the Bay City. As a relatively rare instance of the tomorrow-fixated town recalling otherwise little-remembered figures like Isaiah Lees, I commend the effort.

The Crooks Tour web site also includes a blog, with a recent post noting a significant connection to one of Lees’s great cases that I either missed or forgot. In Brilliant Deduction, I outlined Lees’s direction of the grueling manhunt for fugitive banker Joe Duncan… but I somehow missed the fact that Duncan was the father of Isadora Duncan. Something else to note if I ever prepare a revised edition.

Meanwhile, if anyone is in San Francisco looking for a tour a bit outside the usual itinerary, here you go.

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My new book: Cotton’s Library

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 17, 2014

I have written another book, and it’s officially released today! I hope you’ll check out Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History.Front cover

Where Brilliant Deduction looked into real detectives who are (now) much less famous than fictional counterparts, Cotton’s Library looks into a priceless historic collection much less famous than individual items within it.

The highlights of this collection include some of the most important documents of Anglophone civilization: the sole manuscript sources of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two of four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, and the masterfully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. The English antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton brought all of these together around 400 years ago, along with thousands of other historic documents.

Yet Cotton and his collection remain relatively little-known despite the renown of many individual items in his library, as well as a story both during and after Sir Robert’s time that almost defies belief. Cotton served time as a prisoner in the Tower of London twice, on dubious charges concealing royal discomfort with the library’s prominence among political critics. King Charles I ordered the library itself locked up in 1629; it remained sealed when its brokenhearted founder expired two years later.

Through the centuries that followed, war, neglect, fires, corrupt library-keepers and later collectors’ poaching all threatened the collection’s ruin repeatedly.

With some tragic exceptions, though, the Cotton library has survived them all. The story of its often narrow escapes is a tribute to unsung heroes of history, beginning with Cotton and continuing into the modern era. Their collective efforts to preserve the library’s great treasures for posterity, set against the sweep of history from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, form an epic worthy of James Michener, all of it real.

You can read a free excerpt here. I hope you’ll take a look!

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Chicago Art Institute surprise

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Sep 17, 2014

Expect an announcement or two around here, soon, about a new book. Meanwhile, a brief note related to Brilliant Deduction. Last weekend I was in Chicago, and visited The Art Institute among other attractions. While there, I was surprised to glance across a gallery and see this familiar image:

The Elaine, displayed at Chicago Art Institute

By Toby Rosenthal

I’m sure I’ve read at some point or other that The Elaine, briefly stolen in the 19th century before its recovery by Isaiah Lees, is today at the Art Institute. I had not given it any thought, however, so discovering it unexpectedly was a delightful bit of serendipity. The accompanying text panel makes no note of the painting’s adventure or the hero thereof, whose own portrait was once displayed alongside The Elaine

But we know.

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Unsolved robbery finally solved?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 3, 2014

You may have seen something recently about a California couple finding $10 million in gold. I saw the headlines, but didn’t read into it in any great detail. Then, today, I saw this headline: SF heist at turn of century may explain buried gold.

Something about this intrigued me, and as I read into the story, I recalled what it was. $30,000 (per its original face value) in coins that someone around San Francisco wanted to hide, a long time back…? Why, yes, I’ve read about something much like that.

The San Francisco Mint robbery investigated by William Burns.

I didn’t write about this case at length in Brilliant Deduction, honestly. With Burns, more than almost anyone else I covered, I was really spoiled for choice; in order to go into depth on any cases I had to pick and choose, and the mint robbery was among those cases that got a brief mention only. It was an interesting episode, though, involving impressive work by Burns. He eventually pinned the job on a mint employee, Walter Dimmick, who received a relatively short sentence after two trials ended in hung juries… Perhaps in part because no one ever found the loot.

Until now, perhaps. I see that another item from a few days ago has already considered this theory along with others, and concluded maybe yes, maybe no.

Still, the possibility alone is wild. Meanwhile, for anyone curious, as I recall the best account of Burns’s investigation of the mint robbery was in The Incredible Detective by Gene Caesar.

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