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.

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