Vidocq among the Parisians

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 19, 2014

I recently finished Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris. A few impressions:

“Files of the Sûreté,” a chapter on Vidocq, was my main motivation in checking this one out. It’s interesting reading. Robb’s portrait of Vidocq is different from my own; some quality of the con artist is nearly indispensable for a confidential agent, but Robb suggests a bit more of the former than I did. One particular vignette within the chapter, “The Case of the Yellow Curtains,” was also of particular interest because I also wrote about the same case in Brilliant Deduction, but Robb focused almost entirely on parts of the story I trimmed out, and vice versa.

Based on his notes, Robb used most of the same sources I did. Being fluent in French, he brought in one or two French works as well as an undoubtedly superior background in French history than I did; on the other hand, I read more widely into the history of detection and was probably better prepared to examine Vidocq within that context. In the end, I didn’t really find any significant incompatibility between the Vidocq in Parisians and my own sketch. The bottom line is that Vidocq was an intentionally chimeric figure. Even within a single account, I think that accurately depicting the “real” Vidocq means recognizing that there wasn’t any single, monolithic “truth” to him. As Robb writes, “So many murky tales are attached to Vidocq’s name that he seems to hover over nineteenth-century Paris like a phantom… The exact truth of these and other tales is almost impossible to separate from the mass of rumour and misinformation.”

For those interested in Vidocq, I think Parisians is largely optional reading, meanwhile. The most notable feature from this perspective is probably in the illustrations, which include a splendid cartoon of Vidocq in his office, drawn by Honoré Daumier in 1836. I had not seen this before, and given that no photos of the great detective are known, publication of any additional image is well worthwhile. Otherwise, though, “Files of the Sûreté” is about 18 pages long, and doesn’t contain much that other sources don’t cover, usually in greater detail. As for the other 370-some pages… I found Parisians very hit-or-miss.

I got through the whole thing, which is more than can be said of Robb’s Discovery of France. Which, it should be said, was critically acclaimed while I’m just some jerk with one self-published book and a blog or two, so one may take or leave my criticisms  for whatever they’re worth. That having been said, sometimes Parisians was fantastic, and sometimes it was a slog. Robb approached each chapter with a different, and sometimes wildly different, approach, and while I applaud the spirit of experimentation, I found that many of the individual experiments as well as the whole thing didn’t really work for me. Also, it’s worth noting for anyone else who might care, passive voice is used* with needless frequency throughout the work, and personally I found this a near constant annoyance.

Again, though, grammatical choices aside, this included some excellent chapters, and in all honesty there are a lot of histories of Paris already; trying something different is going to involve risk… which in this instance I don’t think paid off very well… but if you aren’t trying something different, writing yet another Paris history is probably not an especially worthwhile exercise in the first place.

* This is me making a joke.

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Happy New Year

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 1, 2014

My book Brilliant Deduction has been around for about one year, at this point; there wasn’t really a single “release date” except for formal purposes. It’s been a gratifying year, as I’ve written already. One thing I haven’t noted, though, is the interesting geographic range that my little project has traveled.

Thanks to the marvelous site, one can find library copies of just about any title, sorted by proximity to wherever the site thinks you are. As of today, searching Brilliant Deduction turns up records in 16 libraries. This is not a lot, but it’s fascinating that my words have gone so many places, many of which I’ve never been personally. It can even be found, so the site claims at least, (approximately) 3,000 miles away from me in Wasilla, Alaska. How about that?

Presumably there are more library copies out there, too, as does not seem to list the Lakewood Public Library’s Brilliant Deduction holdings, and I know they have three.

Meanwhile, I have begun writing a second book. Completely different subject matter, but it will be good. Trust me. I completed Part One of Three the day before Christmas, and while it will certainly need a lot of work, I’m making real progress.

Have a great 2014.

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The Best Christmas Present Ever

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 2, 2013

The concept of “Cyber Monday” as a calendar event is thoroughly silly by this point… but taking advantage of a timely sale is not. Starting today, Brilliant Deduction is available at 25% off the regular price in hardcover and paperback through the end of 2013. Brand-shiny-new copies direct from, which will likely be offering additional promotions of its own throughout. For good measure, they have holiday shipping deadlines posted, too.

In addition to its many other great qualities praised by independent reviewers, Brilliant Deduction is a much much better gift than a car. Among various other reasons it’s much easier to fit under a typical Christmas tree.

If you really have to show off, for that matter, contact me about getting a personalized signed copy of my book. Also a much better gift than a car.

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William J. Burns returns (again)

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 20, 2013

I don’t know whether there’s any kind of genuine “comeback” in progress, for the great real-life detectives, or I’m simply noticing mentions of them now and that’s all. But whatever the context, I was interested to see a familiar face at The Atlantic today, accompanying an article by Benjamin Welton titled The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes.’

Executive summary and disclosure of the obvious: 1) the story is basically a brief survey of Burns’s career and musing on how its derailing contrasts with the continued popularity of  great-detective fiction, 2) I wrote about all of this at somewhat greater length in a recent book you may have heard of, and 3) nowhere is anything mentioned about the previous point in Welton’s article.

It’s certainly plausible that despite having plainly done a good deal of reading about Bill Burns, Mr. Welton has never heard of my own book, and that I simply need a better publicist. (Self: as soon as I can find someone who will work cheaper, you’re fired.) That said, I shall trust that the same benefit of the doubt will apply to the following supplementary footnotes, and that any resemblance to irritable sniping will be understood as entirely coincidental.

Going down the article from the start, off the top of my head I would point out the following (possibly very reasonable and/or editorially imposed) simplifications or other points of contention: Read more…

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New look, old legacy for Pinkertons

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 15, 2013

In the latest chapter of “interesting people and information find you after you publish a book,” I received an e-mail a little while back from today’s Pinkerton agency. This was actually my first contact with the firm; in researching my book there seemed little need to bother them given that 1) aside from a few brief notes about subsequent decades, my examination of the Pinkertons leaves off with William Pinkerton’s death 90 years ago, and 2) most of their surviving early archives have been donated to the Library of Congress.

Still, it’s always fun to receive feedback on my work, and the nice woman who contacted me was very generous in offering to answer questions I might have.

Perhaps the most interesting information I received from this exchange, though, was an indirect tip-off that Pinkerton has updated its web presence. For what my opinion as a designer and amateur historian is worth, the revised site appears highly polished and professional, as well as a more compelling portrait than the government-services-led version online when I was writing my book.

The new history page is an especially thoughtful addition, offering a quick scroll through significant events from Pinkerton’s century and a half story, as well as a selection of interesting photos. A number of these are familiar though a few were not; alas, one particular image of a woman with a highly tantalizing file name is not a genuine contemporary image of the elusive Kate Warne. The image does come with an interesting story, all the same, as it is most likely a sketch created (possibly by this gentleman?) some years ago as part of a television program pitch. Neat, eh?

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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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Happy birthday, Ellis Parker!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Sep 12, 2013

On this day, 142 years ago: Ellis H. Parker born near Wrightstown, New Jersey. Happy birthday, chief Parker! I don’t expect this will actually happen, but I certainly like to imagine that they might raise a toast down at the Elks Club in Mount Holly, this evening, in your honor.

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Happy birthday, Vidocq!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 23, 2013

On this day (probably), 238 years ago: Eugène François Vidocq born in Arras, France. Happy birthday to the inventor of the detective profession and the private detective agency, and the inspiration for countless detective stories real and fictional.

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Happy birthday, Allan Pinkerton!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 21, 2013

On this day, 194 years ago: Allan Pinkerton born in Glasgow, Scotland. Happy birthday to the most famous of many by that name; you may not have been the first Allan Pinkerton (even in your own family), but you’re definitely number one in the history books.

Anyone in Glasgow (or perhaps Chicago) who feels like a 200th birthday commemoration would be appropriate has six whole years to work on it.

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Thanks and have a great summer

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 16, 2013

I would like to say a formal “thank you” to all who have visited this site, or may yet do so, or taken an interest in my modest little project here one way or another. As well as, of course, a special double extra “thank you” to those who have purchased my book and/or shared kind comments in one forum or another.

Thank you.

I am very close to 100 posts on this blog, now; if we guess that the average post is close to 600 words that’s a total of about 60,000. As my book is a bit more than 112,000 words, then even allowing for a lot of ballpark estimating, I have now posted around half as much additional material online for free as the entire content of the book I’m theoretically promoting.

I’m pleased with that. My main purpose in writing Brilliant Deduction was not making money, which is good because at the current pace it will be a long time before the project achieves even a modestly defined profit. Having committed myself to writing and then publishing this work, I decided nonetheless to make a go at promoting it, and in the process have tried a number of things I have rarely if ever done before. I’ve done a good deal of “warm” and even “cold” sales pitching. I’ve sent out a press release. I’ve walked into stores with wares to offer for stock. I’ve spoken to an audience of strangers in a double-bill with a retired FBI agent. I’ve literally set out my stall at an author fair and spent the day meeting and greeting all kinds of visitors (and thanks, too, to everyone who stopped at my table at Author Alley). I’ve even contacted the alumni association with genuinely exciting news about myself for the first time.

It’s been a great ride even though, yeah, sales numbers have been modest. Nice all the same, believe me; I have been thrilled at both the critical and commercial reaction to this out-of-nowhere self-published book!

Read more…

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