Further reading in fiction

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 8, 2013

I probably should have done this a while ago. But, better late than never; the other day it occurred to me to post suggested “further reading” about Brilliant Deduction‘s protagonists in fiction. Nearly all of them have inspired some sort of fictional tales, after all, either of themselves or of close analogues.

Vidocq probably leads the list, in every way. His own influential Memoirs are, most likely, at least semi-fictionalized. According to one rumor, in fact, they were mostly the work of his friend Honoré de Balzac, who definitely wrote other fictionalized works inspired by Vidocq. Father Goriot, Lost illusions, and Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life are all available for free in English translation at Project Gutenberg. The same is true of multiple stories of Emile Gaboriau’s detective Lecoq: The Lerouge Case, The Mystery of Orcival, File No. 113, and Monsieur Lecoq. (Et aussi Les Esclaves des Paris, si vous connaissez le français). And, while it may stretch things a bit, it might be worth mentioning Les Miserables if only because Vidocq may have contributed inspiration to both of its main characters…

The Road child murder case investigated by Jonathan Whicher has inspired more than one work of fiction, though to my knowledge Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is the only one to include any significant analogue to Whicher himself (as Sergeant Cuff). Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, whose author Charles Dickens knew Whicher personally, may actually bear more resemblance to Whicher, though. (Even if JW’s colleague Frederick Field was the “official” model for the character.)

I suspect that most of the Pinkerton dynasty’s outings in fiction have taken inspiration from Allan, rather than his children; the only exception I know of is the graphic novel Detective 27, which gives a little space to William though Allan still gets most of the best scenes. Brief searching, meanwhile, also turns up Pinkerton’s Secret: A Novel and Nevermore – a novel of Edgar Allan Poe and Allan Pinkerton.

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Detection and The City

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 26, 2013

The professional detective is primarily an urban figure. I touch on this association a few times in Brilliant Deduction, as well as how the rise of the detective profession to its greatest prominence coincided with the rise of the expanding industrial cities of 19th century Europe and America; the combination of very large concentrations of people (mostly unfamiliar to one another and constantly being joined by immigrants from the countryside or overseas), with evolutions in commerce (e.g. the spread of banking services) and transportation (e.g. the railroad’s enabling rapid access to distant points on the map) found old-fashioned law enforcement measures sorely wanting.

I was pleased to see some of the same ideas, recently, examined in a work looking at the other side of the phenomenon, i.e. cities. In City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, P.D. Smith considers seemingly more aspects of life than not, in fact, appropriately enough given his thesis that the tendency toward urban life is an essential part of what defines the human race. At any rate, a great deal of human experience since the beginning of recorded history has been part of the urban experience, certainly, crime and crimefighting being no exceptions.

Smith notes that “Crime fiction emerges at the same time as the rise of the great industrial cities of Europe and America,” including detective fiction, the prototype of which was Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

When “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published, the word “detective” did not even exist in the English language. The first detective department [in the Anglophone world] appeared the year after, in 1842. Even in 1840, New York… had no full-time, professional police force. Indeed, there was little serious crime. But over the coming decades the situation changed as the city grew rapidly. In 1859, the New York Herald complained: “Our record of crime to-day is truly appalling. Scarcely is the excitement attending one murder allayed when a fresh tragedy equally horrible takes place.” … Within thirty years, policing became New York City’s single largest expenditure and there was a growing fear of organised crime.”

Pretty much, yeah. Poe, of course, was partly inspired to write the first detective story by the exploits of the first detective, Vidocq… the word “detective” was introduced to the English language by Charles Dickens, in articles about Jonathan Whicher and other members of the detective force established to address London’s “appalling” crime problems… in the years ahead, the rapid growth of not only New York but newer American cities on the western frontier, such as Chicago and San Francisco, created opportunities for remarkable figures in both private detection (such as Allan Pinkerton) and public forces (such as Isaiah Lees). Even the one exception to Brilliant Deduction‘s otherwise urban-dwelling cast, Ellis Parker, may have lived and worked in a rural small-town setting but was at the same time firmly within the super-urbanized region that first spawned the term “megalopolis.”

One might indeed have subtitled my book The Story of Real-Life Great-City Detectives… except that it would have been thoroughly redundant.

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The dream of William Burns

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 15, 2013

Note: On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped, prompting a years-long investigation into the crime. Six weeks later, William Burns died following a prolonged period of illness. The rest of what follows is entirely the invention of the author.

William Burns puffed out his cheeks in frustration. As he exhaled, a small jet of vapor formed for a moment. It was damn well cold enough up here, he thought. Florida was a Hell of a lot more livable in March.

Burns crossed his arms, and tilted his head one way and then the other, as though looking for something. There was nothing to see, though, at any rate nothing more than there had been all morning. Just that big new house, off through the pine trees. A couple of cars out front. No one coming or going, though, and nothing else anywhere nearby but more trees. He believed—no, he had seen—figures moving inside the house a few times, even from this far away. But that didn’t prove anything useful. What was he doing here, really?

What was Lindbergh doing here was a better question, he thought, squeezing himself against the frosty evening air. All that money, beloved by everyone and opportunities anywhere he went, and he chose to make his home up here halfway to the Arctic? Year-round? He had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, surely the concept of removing someplace warm at least for the winter wasn’t too daunting for him…

He might try to drop a hint, perhaps, an offhand remark about someone he knew who wintered in Florida. Though for that matter, his family might want to relocate entirely after this; god knows Burns knew the feeling. If only Lindbergh would talk to him. Burns could help, he wanted to help, he understood what this was like. He had been through much of it, more than once: threats to his family, anonymous notes, and of course the whole circus that always converges on a case like this. Burns had been in the middle of those too many times to count and he understood the instinct to hole up in a fortress, shut everything out, trust no one, but dammit they needed his help and here he was, ready to offer it, but stuck tramping around in a forest like some gumshoe amateur.

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Detectives off their patch

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 23, 2013

Recently finished reading The Neruda Case, a fine novel by Roberto Ampuero. The author’s Cuban-American-Chilean protagonist, Cayetano Brulé, spends the book learning on the job (and from Maigret novels) how to be a detective. At one point, he muses at some length on how Maigret and other (fictional) detectives who are his primary reference points could ultimately offer him few practical lessons, not because they are fictional but because they are from an entirely different society:

Even if he braved the underworld and greased his relationships with informants, Miagret could never accomplish anything in a region as chaotic, improvised, and unpredictable as Latin America. Just like the gentleman Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Maigret could investigate his heart out in stable and organized nations like the United States and France, where a rational philosophy reigned over the people, rules and clear laws prevailed, logic shaped daily life, and solid, prestigious institutions and an efficient police force worked to ensure respect for the law. On the other hand, in Latin America—where improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day—everything was possible.

In a place where a communist nation coexisted with modern capitalist cities, feudally exploitative if not enslaving plantations, and jungles where history had frozen in the times of the cavemen, European detectives weren’t worth a thing. It was that brutally simple. In those Amazonian, Andean, or Caribbean worlds, detective such as Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot would find their dazzling deductive powers failing to clear matters up. The crux of the problem was that the North’s logic simply didn’t apply in Latin America.

I find this interesting for a number of reasons.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Detective

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 31, 2012

All of the real-life great detectives I profiled in Brilliant Deduction have some sort of connection with their fictional counterparts’ world. Sometimes direct “crossovers” in person, sometimes inspiration for fictional analogues. And sometimes it’s hard to tell, as with the relationship between “Paddington” Pollaky and Sherlock Holmes, which I spend some time exploring in the book.

I suspect that the former was a part inspiration for the latter, though it’s possible that some or all of the associations between them are unintentional. I’m certain that’s the case with a couple of other fictional characters who, in one way or another, remind me of “the well-known Pollaky of Paddington Green.”

I’ll probably always think of Pollaky whenever I watch the magnificent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from now on, in at least one scene; oddly enough, moreover, out of all the film’s memorable characters it’s the governess Edith who recalls Pollaky. An Englishwoman in Germany when the title character meets her, Edith explains that so far as she can discern she has only one real skill, that being an excellent command of the English language. As teaching English to English children would be “carrying coals to Newcastle,” she had elected to seek employment on the Continent where English fluency might command more of a premium. I don’t know why Pollaky made the opposite journey in his own youth, but I can’t help guessing that something of the same thinking may have played a role.

Pollaky had a good grasp of several languages, apparently, though unlike Edith it’s also a mystery as to which, precisely, was his native tongue. Which leads to one more, presumably unintentional fictional parallel: Toby Esterhase.

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