Runners-up: Thomas Byrnes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 19, 2013

One claimant for “great detective” who didn’t quite make my final nine does, nonetheless, have his own biography, certainly a respectable consolation given the rare company this places him in among detectives. Neither “Paddington” Pollaky, nor either of the Pinkerton brothers, has a biography of his own yet. But Thomas F. Byrnes, who rose to direct New York City’s police for 15 years, does.

The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective by J. North Conway chronicles Byrnes’s lively career. Given that I was trying to write a book about great detectives, I could hardly pass it up.

My impression of Byrnes is that he was almost the ultimate expression, the purest and most prominent example, of the brutal 19th-century Irish cop keeping order in the big northern city through regular application of violence to those communities he judged as troublemakers. It’s a stereotype, of course. But I’m guessing that a number of such Mick flatfoots did indeed walk the beat. Byrnes, aside from his avoidance of strong drink, comes across as the most canny of their number, risen to the top of the profession. He was unquestionably an impressive operator.

But that isn’t quite the same as a great detective—and in my view Byrnes doesn’t even rate honorable mention in that category. Book titles, of course, are not always the author’s responsibility, but regardless of whoever chose that of The Big Policeman I’m going to declare it at least two-thirds groundless ballyhoo.

As far as America’s “first detective” is concerned, Byrnes doesn’t even come close. Allan Pinkerton founded his private detective agency while Byrnes, born in 1842, was still a child. Even in the realm of police detectives, Byrnes lacks much of a claim. Per one or another source, I’ve seen Boston’s police nominated as the first force in America to introduce a small detective department in 1846, only a few years after Scotland Yard. If that’s faintly hazy, I’m quite confident in Brilliant Deduction‘s record of the career of Isaiah Lees, who became San Francisco’s captain of detectives in 1855, around the time Byrnes was learning to shave.

As for “greatest” detective, I must judge the evidence nearly as poor. Among the remarkable innovations offered in support of Byrnes’s genius, we have: the rogues’ gallery, an idea attributed to nearly every 19th century detective from what I can tell (and for which Allan Pinkerton probably has the best claim), detailed record-keeping (mastered by Vidocq, so effectively that Paris’s police were nearly as desperate for his records as kids for Lucky Charms, before Byrnes was even born), and “the third degree,” which I suspect centuries of Inquisitors and other official torturers would be surprised to learn was only invented in the late 19th century.

Innovation isn’t everything, of course, and there’s much to be said for skilled practice, but the accounts of Byrnes’s cases also failed to impress. The suggestion that he demonstrated some noteworthy measure of perception by paying attention to letters and newspaper clippings at a crime scene—in 1872—is just plain silly. It’s possible that once upon a time this indeed represented unusually sharp observation. It’s even possible, I suppose, that it it was still above-average detective work in 1872, in New York. But the bar had been raised considerably higher, by that point, in London, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.

I will note that my disagreements with Conway’s conclusions didn’t prevent me from enjoying his book. I believe his assessment of Byrnes was considerably exaggerated, but his account of the man and his life was nonetheless quite entertaining. And, for what it’s worth, it was hardly alone among great detective biographies in falling prey to overenthusiasm for its subject. In fact, while I did include its subject, unlike that of The Big Policeman, Gene Caesar’s The Incredible Detective suggests that the former work’s failing wasn’t even unique among biographies of great detectives whose last names are pronounced “Burnz.”

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