Great detectives in winter

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 5, 2013

Figuratively, that is, i.e. “the lion in winter.” The story of real-life great detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction had its own beginning, middle and ending. But of course, the individuals within that larger story all had their own life-story arcs, as well. I’ve been thinking about those arcs’ trailing ends, lately. Note, I suppose what follows may be considered spoilers for my book…

…though, really, given that the youngest of my main characters was born in 1871, I’m hardly giving away much in noting that every chapter ends one way or another with “and then, he died.” That’s how they all end, though, which I suppose is natural enough though it did feel a bit strange while writing it. Over and over, one ends up writing death scenes, in a sense. One does so, all the same, I suppose because once you’ve introduced someone and described the rest of his life then, presuming it has reached an ending, you just kind of feel obligated to see it through to that ending.

In looking back at those deaths and what preceded them, though, I can say that in some ways the lot of the great detectives was relatively fortunate. These men lived in an era when medicine was just beginning to become more useful than hazardous, and often worked in crowded, unsanitary cities regularly culled by cholera or other diseases. To say nothing of the additional dangers their professions exposed them to. Some confronted greater peril through work than others, but more than half survived at least one attempt to cut his life short through artificial means…

And yet, all of them did survive those attempts. Every one of the great detectives died of natural causes, in essentially quiet, domestic circumstances. The only one whose life we might describe as being brought short through any sort of “misadventure” at all would be Allan Pinkerton, who died of an infection following injury in a fall. He still lived into his 60s, and a largely peaceful retirement at home, in spite of various efforts to preempt such an ending.

The average lifespan of the men profiled in Brilliant Deduction, meanwhile, is 72. The CIA’s Fact Book entry for the United States informs us that the current life expectancy for men is 76 years. I’m guessing that it was considerably lower in the mid to late 19th century, even after accounting for higher infant mortality.

I’m not sure why the great detectives should have lived such relatively long lives; obviously there’s a selection bias at work, in that dying very early would likely have prevented them from making a list of great detectives, but one might have achieved a lasting reputation by age 50, and some of them did indeed complete their active careers by the onset of middle age.

Yet the only one to die before 60 was Robert Pinkerton; the next earliest to go all reached 65 or older. Perhaps a generally strong constitution might be regarded as  much a prerequisite, for success as an early detective, as long life. That might offer some explanation of why nearly all those on my list lived well into a seventh decade or later, in some cases much later and long after they had completed the accomplishments qualifying them for the list.

“Paddington” Pollaky held the record, at 90, followed by Vidocq at 82 and William Pinkerton in his late 70s. Pollaky also holds the record for longest retirement, certainly, at nearly 36 years. Moreover his retirement was the most and in some ways the only complete retirement out of all of his peers.

Of the others, Vidocq closed his Bureau de Renseignements in the late 1840s and lived for another decade, but he continued working on at least occasional cases throughout nearly all of his remaining years. Whicher, by contrast, may have hoped to make his second and final retirement, to Battersea, as thoroughly removed from work as Pollaky, but he had barely a year before illness wrote finish to his story. Most everyone else in the famous detective game retired only partially and, in some cases, grudgingly. Only failing health forced Allan Pinkerton to slow down in the mid 1870s, several years before his 1884 death; otherwise he likely would have remained on the job, at least as a businessman, until he collapsed, just like his son William. Lees, Burns and Parker all retired, in some sense, involuntarily, and still kept a hand in to the extent they were able for years afterward.

This, I suppose, is not so surprising; though many of these detective careers included episodes of considerable physical exertion, much of their work was a mental activity all the same, and in that area, slowing down with age is offset by depth of experience.

Perhaps this, in part, explains why multiple attempts to close the door on the career of fiction’s greatest detective never really proved convincing…

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