Been and gone: Ignatius Pollaky

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 25, 2013

I have no idea what day Ignatius Paul Pollaky was born in Pressburg, so for now, no birthday post. But he died in Brighton, England, just 95 years ago at the ripe old age of 90. Rest in peace, most mysterious of great detectives; very truly we hardly knew ye.


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Brilliant connections

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 31, 2013

The era of renowned detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction lasted close to 150 years. But the individual careers highlighted were spread out through that time, and each overlapped with at least a few others. In many cases, they nonetheless plied their trade in parallel with one another. Geographic distance played a large role in this, of course; crossing North America or the Atlantic Ocean was a loooong trip for much of that time. Direct connections between my main characters are therefore few in number.

Remarkably, however, nearly every one of them had some direct contact with at least one of his peers.

Vidocq is one of the two outliers in my history; he was so far ahead of everyone else in the pursuit of professionalized detection that his career was winding up as others were just getting started. But he made up for it by living quite a long time. As a result he was able to see other nations set up detective bureaus inspired by his Sûreté, such as Scotland Yard in neighboring Britain, and even to enjoy some of the acclaim owed him for it when Scotland Yard officers visited Paris and then hosted him in London, later.

I’m almost certain that this second event must have involved some sort of meeting between Vidocq and Jonathan Whicher. I don’t have any information stating specifically that they met, but beyond that, it seems almost impossible that they wouldn’t have. Whicher was one of Scotland Yard’s original eight detectives in 1842, and the force hadn’t grown much when Vidocq paid them a visit just a few years later. The image is appealing, as a kind of passing-the-baton moment between the first of this new breed of investigator and one of his first prominent successors (Whicher’s life and detective career are the next-earliest after Vidocq’s, out of my final nine). But it is, as noted, speculation.

The same goes for any contact between Whicher and “Paddington” Pollaky, though here, too, the circumstantial evidence is considerable and likely even greater than that for the earlier perhaps-meeting. Whicher and Pollaky worked alongside one another as detectives in London for 30 years, from Pollaky’s arrival in Britain to Whicher’s retirement—nearly the whole length of Pollaky’s own career. Before setting up his own Private Inquiry Office, Pollaky regularly worked as an interpreter for the police and courts, and also spent a few years working for the private detective firm of Charles Field; Field was a former Scotland Yard detective, himself, and a good friend of Whicher. Pollaky even had a minor role in the aftermath of Whicher’s most infamous case, the Road child murder, most likely at Field’s behest. While the two detectives’ parts in that affair probably did not overlap, it seems inconceivable that they didn’t meet at least once in some other circumstance given their overlapping circles of acquaintances and the length of time involved.

That’s mostly it for direct contact involving any of my European cast members… there were opportunities for some of the American detectives to meet their Old World peers, but much less evidence they did so. I’ll return to that in another post.

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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.

Read more…

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Odd timing: Zanesville & Sanford

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 25, 2012

It’s probably only the sort of coincidental connection that inevitably results from any large-ish project, like writing a book, but still, I want to share a curious bit of synchronicity from Brilliant Deduction‘s genesis.

In researching the life of William Burns, I discovered that one of the indisputably greatest detectives of all time was a fellow adopted Ohioan. (I moved here from Iowa, Burns from Maryland.) Burns made his first forays into detection in Columbus, though in between his birth in Baltimore and his family’s eventual resettling in our state’s capital, he spent much of his childhood in Zanesville. (His Zanesville years may not have had any particular influence of Burns, though it’s possible that a school lesson from the period played an important role many years later in his resolution of the great counterfeit Monroe-note case.) Despite living, according to Yahoo! Maps, no more than 150 miles from Zanesville, I had never heard of the place, myself.

And then in late 2011, as I was finishing up my research, I and a whole lot of other people heard about Zanesville in a very memorable context.

This would be mildly curious, on its own, but it really struck me in combination with what happened a few months later, as I was finally writing the first draft of Brilliant Deduction. My research was mostly complete by that point, but I continued working on a few interesting leads, including one relating to my most mysterious subject, Ignatious “Paddington” Pollaky. Thanks to Derek Ross and his diligent efforts reassembling the traces of Pollaky’s life and career, I knew that Pollaky had played a modest role in the international intelligence battles of America’s Civil War, at the behest of one Henry Shelton Sanford. As it happens, the Florida city he founded after the war has preserved most of the man’s papers including some fascinating correspondence from Pollaky, of which the local museum graciously provided extensive digital copies. (I eventually incorporated some of this material into the chapter on Pollaky, enriching the chapter considerably I believe; if you’re good I may share a bit of it here as well.)

Like Zanesville, I had otherwise never heard of Sanford and knew absolutely nothing of it. But right around this time, it surfaced in not one but two unexpected places. First, my brother moved to Deltona, Florida, barely 15 miles from Sanford. Second… this happened.

Strange world.

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