Cockney accent, Pine Belt twang

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 24, 2013

Some day it may be possible to listen to Brilliant Deduction. I think that would be cool; I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks or spoken word audio, personally, but even for me a good audiobook or two is an absolute must on a long road trip. If my book ever does get some kind of audio outing, though, one thing it won’t have is actual audio of the people whose stories it features. We have at least a few words from each, but not their voices.

At any rate, not to my knowledge. It’s technically possible that most of the stars of Brilliant Deduction could have left some sort of audio record; according to Wikipedia the first primitive sound recordings were produced the same year Vidocq passed away. The next earliest of my detectives was around for nearly 30 years after that, into the age of Edison’s early wax cylinders. That said, it’s unlikely that anyone ever recorded the speech of Jack Whicher or Allan Pinkerton; various sources indicate that the first recording of a U.S. president was not made until around 1880. With the later detectives, it’s at least possible, and given William Burns‘s enthusiasm for both performance and gadgetry, I would almost be more surprised if he hadn’t produced an audio recording at some point or other—but that doesn’t mean it has survived 80+ years later.

In the absence of any recordings, though, one can at least make a few educated guesses about what these fellows sounded like…

Vidocq was from Arras, up at the very north of France. What that means, though, I’m not sure; I’ve read that France in the 18th century when he was growing up was home to much more diversity of languages and dialects than is the case today, to say nothing of accents. That said, presumably Vidocq was capable of disguising whatever native accent he possessed, given that he played a number of convincing roles at times, from a Breton to a Romani (i.e. gypsy).

Jonathan Whicher was born in Camberwell; near London, but London itself being famously home to such a riotous assortment of speech even before multiculturalism, perhaps only Professor Higgins could guess Whicher’s particular emphases and elisions. (I will point to the words of “Sergeant Witchem” as recorded by Charles Dickens as a lively example of Whicher’s likely syntax, though.)

Allan Pinkerton, per biographers, had a thick Glasgow accent all his life, so that’s at least something to go on. That said… I’ve got to confess that I often imagine Pinkerton’s words in the voice of the late Charles Durning. Though the two probably sounded almost nothing alike, that famous irascible temperament of Durning’s typical characters just seems too much like Pinkerton for me to ignore.

As for “Paddington” Pollakywe don’t even know what his native language was. Go fish.

Isaiah Lees was born in England, but spent almost all his early life in Paterson, New Jersey. What this would have produced, I have no idea.

Likewise it’s difficult to guess what kind of accent William and Robert Pinkerton would have had. They were raised by two Scottish parents, but spent most of their early life in mid-19th century Chicago. I tend to imagine their speech as the kind of minimally accented (or so we perceive it) Midwestern American of my own upbringing, but that’s barely even intuition. As for voices, though, I imagine both speaking in a deep, slow voice, perhaps a bit like Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason. (Meanwhile, I always imagine Adam Worth sounding like Jonathan Pryce; perhaps it’s his appearance.)

As with so many things, William Burns has a bit in common with his bitter rival here, also: Burns, too, was born to two Gaelic immigrant parents and raised mostly in the American Midwest. I can, at least, feel confident that whatever accent he may have spoken with, his speech was likely much more lively in range and tone than Pinkerton’s; Burns was a natural storyteller and probably used his voice to bring a sense of drama to almost any conversation, regardless of the subject.

Finally, with Ellis Parker, we have one more fairly reliable clue, sort of: I recall at least one newspaper article or other source referring to Parker’s “twang” typical of the New Jersey Pine Belt region. Though, again, I’m not sure what that would imply; my only visits to the Garden State have been confined to the greater New York area thus far.

Ah well, just too early. I don’t believe it has too much to do with modern culture’s general amnesia regarding the great detectives, still, the fact that they are all silent now does seem relevant even if not as a cause. “We weep for the blood of a bird, but not the blood of a fish; blessed are those that have voice.”

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