Runners-up: James McParland

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 28, 2012

Nine detectives made the final cut for Brilliant Deduction. I think they represent a good effort at answering the question that began it all, i.e. “who are the greatest detectives ever outside of fiction?” Collectively, they represent a few of the various possible interpretations of “great detective,” they provide a good survey of the whole era of real-life famous detectives from its beginning to its closing days, and I suspect that if nothing else most of the strongest candidates for the most amazing individual detective, ever, are included.

I won’t claim for a minute that it’s a comprehensive list, though. It wasn’t intended to be, both for the purpose of a tighter narrative, and because (as is the more or less the book’s very raison d’être) the work of detectives has become quite obscure compared with what it once was. I make no bones about the fact that my selection was influenced by whom I could find the most information on. As demonstrated by the career of “Paddington” Pollaky, the one major character in Brilliant Deduction who lacks even a single biography, piecing together the affairs of a private investigator is a formidable challenge. And Pollaky was an exceptionally well-known PI, at least once! I can’t disprove that even better detectives than my cast may exist, but finding enough information to tell their stories is, at least, a task for a more able researcher than I.

All that having been said, the final nine of Brilliant Deduction were by no means the only detectives I considered in evaluating greatness. From time to time I plan on posting a bit about the “runners-up,” and I’ll begin with James McParland.

Or James McParlan, depending on which source one consults. The fact that accounts of the man never seemed to establish the spelling of his name with certainty, alone, hints that his fame may have fallen short of the first order. But one biography of Vidocq, an impressive work no less, bucks nearly every other source and insists that he was named François Eugène, rather than the other way around. Whatever his own name was, McParlan(d) also enjoyed a real degree of renown at one time, if not quite on Vidocq’s level. I put together several pages of notes on McParland, in fact, before deciding he wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

He seemed well worth looking into; the first page of my notes observes that he was “sometimes referred to as the ‘Great Detective'” (Wikipedia), and History’s web site claims that “James McParlan [see what I mean?] later became the most celebrated private detective of the era.”

In the end, though, I concluded that there were a few problems with McParlan(d) as great detective.

First, he spent pretty much his entire career as a Pinkerton employee, and I was already committed to writing about at least one Pinkerton, and eventually decided that Allan’s sons William and Robert had a better case for “most celebrated private detective” of the era which they shared with McParlan(d). (His life and William Pinkerton’s overlap almost entirely.) Had I thrown in McParland, too, I might as well have given up everyone else and just written a book about the Pinkerton agency.

Second, and part of the reason why I would rank McParlan(d) below his bosses, is that not only were they his bosses (which by itself proves little about their significance as detectives) but the Pinkertons had more impressive case books. McParland is primarily known for one case, possibly two. The first is the Molly Maguires investigation, of which more in a moment. The second, a bomb attack on a former governor of Idaho, was an interesting case but a good deal of important work was done before McParland even got involved. (He also played a role in harrying the Wild Bunch out of existence, but this seems to have been merely a piece of the Pinkerton Agency’s larger efforts coordinated from above.)

Admittedly, I included Jonathan Whicher among my final nine based on a similar résumé; he played roles in solving various interesting crimes but two biggies really overshadow everything else. But Whicher was also one of Britain’s first few, formal detectives, whereas McParlan(d) was a subordinate of the Pinkertons, at a time when they had expanded to employ quite a lot of detectives. Much more importantly, Whicher was also a detective who won fame for detective work. Which leads to my third and most significant reason for passing over McParland:

In the Molly Maguires investigation which made his reputation, he wasn’t really acting as a detective so much as a spy. In the role of James McKenna, McParlan(d) was an undercover agent conducting extended surveillance of the Molly Maguires at the behest of a detective, Allan Pinkerton. He was, per all accounts, an extremely effective agent as well, and his efforts led to the conviction of nearly two dozen men, breaking the power of a murderous terror group (or breaking the back of laborers pressed to desperate measures by ruthless mine owners, per the Pinkertons’ persistent critics; take your pick). But he was still a spy rather than a detective. Obviously, espionage and detection have a good deal of overlap, but they aren’t interchangeable, and McParland’s infiltration of the “Mollies” fits entirely within the espionage category.

So I set McParlan(d) aside and moved on, mostly. He does appear in Brilliant Deduction, briefly (I elected to include the “d”), because even if his role in the Molly Maguires case wasn’t really detection, the affair and its aftermath eventually connected no fewer than three of the detectives I did choose, plus the creator of history’s most famous detective of all. The fourth and final (canon) Sherlock Holmes novel, Valley of Fear, drew heavily upon McParland’s time as McKenna, and arguments over Conan Doyle’s use of those events draw in Allan and William Pinkerton as well as William Burns. But you can read about that in the book

Meanwhile, fourth and finally, it’s something of a relief that McParlan(d) didn’t have a stronger case for himself as a great detective, because I really wouldn’t want the responsibility of having to rule definitively on whatever his damn name really was.

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