Great detectives in comics: Pinkerton

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 8, 2013

In my chapter on Allan Pinkerton, I make some observations about Allan Pinkerton’s relatively durable fame compared with most of his peers, and about some of the unusual forms that fame has taken:

The Pinkertons were effectively the nation’s law force during the Civil War and the Wild West era. Allan himself planned strategy with Abraham Lincoln, hunted fraud for the great railroad magnates, and waged war against the Renos and the James Gang. With such famous company, Pinkerton and his agency never vanish for very long before some new retelling or re-imagining, from a children’s book, to a television documentary, to the fictionalized historic background of a Batman graphic novel.

I happen to own the last item referred to, though I didn’t realize that it had any tie-in with great detectives when I purchased it. Or at least, great detectives other than the Dark Knight Detective himself, whose reputation as a detective is (IMO) more of a tradition based on his first appearance in Detective Comics issue #27 than on the modern character being particularly more of a detective than any other costumed crimefighter. The 2003 graphic novel Detective No. 27 by Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg, however, is an “imaginary story” which takes Bruce Wayne out of costume to unravel a mysterious conspiracy alongside a number of other famed detectives, some fictional and some historical.

The latter includes Allan Pinkerton, along with a couple of his own best detectives. Appearing only in flashback to the conspiracy’s beginnings, none of the Pinkertons meet “Detective Number 27,” i.e. Bruce Wayne., but they get considerably more ink than the cameos for which Nick & Nora, Nero Wolfe, et al. have to settle. They also get lively action scenes with a bit of a Wild Wild West flavor, such as these panels in which Allan, disguised as Charles Darwin, is exposed by one of the bad guys:

Allan Pinkerton in 'Detective No. 27'

Art by Snejbjerg, dialogue by Uslan

While both the disguise and the spring-loaded derringer are artistic license, the rest of Pinkerton’s appearances are reasonably historically accurate. He closely resembles the Library of Congress’s Brady portrait, and more than once acted out just the kind of contemptuous two-fisted response to his opponents as suggested above.

His appearance in later scenes, in 1884, take a bit more liberty, mostly by showing him considerably more active than history suggests:

Allan and William Pinkerton, with Kate Warne, from 'Detective No. 27'

Allan actually died in 1884, after having by most accounts been in declining health for years. That said, while his recovery from a major stroke was probably never this complete the reports of its eventual extent do vary considerably, and in the story, Uslan does suggest that the official stories were intentionally misleading as a result of a later plot twist.

William Pinkerton, also shown in the above panel, probably gets the least impressive role; though he appears in all of the scenes that his father does, William is largely just back-up. (Though he does better than his brother Robert, who receives neither “screen time” nor even a mention, except in the footnotes.) I’m not sure the likeness is really as good, either, resembling William Taft more than William Pinkerton based on photos I’ve seen.

On the other hand, though I can’t address the accuracy of her appearance (I’m not sure that any photos have even survived), Allan’s redoubtable woman detective Kate Warne gets quite an outing. Warne enjoys the simultaneous roles of large-eyed cutie and gun-toting action hero:

Kate Warne and William Pinkerton, from 'Detective No. 27'

Some help you are, William…

Don't mess with Kate Warne

…fine, then, I’LL get us out of this

She also gets the boon of being alive and well in the later 1884 scenes, 16 years after Warne passed away in real life. (Unlike Pinkerton’s reimagined fate, Warne’s extra years receive no comment and are presumably simply ignorance or artistic license; given the author’s considerable research demonstrated elsewhere in the work I presume the latter.)

It’s worth observing that Allan Pinkerton, who penned (and authorized others to ghostwrite) a number of detective adventure stories just might have smiled a little bit at his and Warne’s turn as comic book heroes, nearly 120 years after his death. William, by contrast, probably would have scowled at it and called his lawyer, as much because his attitude toward detective stories was considerably more negative than his father’s (for reasons on which I speculate a few times in Brilliant Deduction) as because he doesn’t look very effective.

For my own part I rate Detective No. 27 as quite enjoyable; the central conspiracy pushes suspension of disbelief quite a bit, but it isn’t really the point of the work. The weaving together of so many fictional and historic figures (Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Babe Ruth and Gregor Mendel among many others) is the real purpose of the exercise, and I find the result much fun. I don’t think one even needs to be much of a comic book fan, for what that’s worth; if you’ve seen a few of the Batman movies, e.g., you’ll “get” a majority of the tropes with which the story plays around.

Anyone know of other Pinkerton appearances in comics? Let me know.

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