William J. Burns returns (again)

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 20, 2013

I don’t know whether there’s any kind of genuine “comeback” in progress, for the great real-life detectives, or I’m simply noticing mentions of them now and that’s all. But whatever the context, I was interested to see a familiar face at The Atlantic today, accompanying an article by Benjamin Welton titled The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes.’

Executive summary and disclosure of the obvious: 1) the story is basically a brief survey of Burns’s career and musing on how its derailing contrasts with the continued popularity of  great-detective fiction, 2) I wrote about all of this at somewhat greater length in a recent book you may have heard of, and 3) nowhere is anything mentioned about the previous point in Welton’s article.

It’s certainly plausible that despite having plainly done a good deal of reading about Bill Burns, Mr. Welton has never heard of my own book, and that I simply need a better publicist. (Self: as soon as I can find someone who will work cheaper, you’re fired.) That said, I shall trust that the same benefit of the doubt will apply to the following supplementary footnotes, and that any resemblance to irritable sniping will be understood as entirely coincidental.

Going down the article from the start, off the top of my head I would point out the following (possibly very reasonable and/or editorially imposed) simplifications or other points of contention: Read more…

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Ignatius Pollaky, a Sherlock Holmes in 1874?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 20, 2013

Ignatius Pollaky is without question the most mysterious of great detectives. In researching Brilliant Deduction, I pieced together enough to get a sense of the man and his career, but much remains and probably will remain unknown. I don’t know what day he was born, and the only image of the man is a caricature from Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities; it looks as though it may have been drawn from a portrait, but who can say.

There’s something else possibly even more mysterious about that particular drawing, however. Care to guess?

Pollaky, professional snoop

Image from The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum Collection.

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Detective fashion

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 5, 2013

I’m hardly an expert on fashion, either modern or historical. But I have given some thought to how it relates to the great detectives of my book, particularly after receiving one remarkable comment on the cover from a good friend: “Wait a second — I’m looking at their ties!  Holy crap — the first guy looks like 1820 – 1830s.  Then a civil-war era guy — then a 1880s – 1890s guy — then the last one from the 1930s or 40s?  Wow — quite the time range.”

This was one of those moments that remind you people how much people can surprise you, even after you’ve known them for years. I have no idea where it came from, but he just nailed it, without any background about the book’s content, from these photos alone:

Portraits from front cover of Brilliant Deduction

Right to left: Vidocq (prominent in the 1820s); Allan Pinkerton (prominent around the Civil War); William Burns (prominent in the 1890s); Ellis Parker (prominent c. 1930)

For my part, I hadn’t even consciously intended to arrange these portraits in a chronological order, or even realized that I had done so. Still, the discovery that four at least of the great detectives were very much men of their time in terms of style made quite a bit of sense upon thinking about it.

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The Kuhns library of mystery

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 12, 2013

My last name is not incredibly common. Growing up, other than my father’s few living relatives, I knew of one other family with the same name, though strangely enough I was not even the only Matt Kuhns at Iowa State University upon entering college. Still, it’s rare enough that people encountering it as text have to guess pronunciation more often than not, let’s put it that way.

Thus I was immediately intrigued, last year, when I encountered it in the new book area at the library. One Eleanor Kuhns had written a historical mystery, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. I checked it out just for the novelty—I don’t believe I had ever encountered a book by another Kuhns before—though I quite enjoyed the story and can certainly recommend it.

This was, meanwhile, amusing enough given that I had recently completed the manuscript for my own (nonfiction) work on detection and mysteries in times past. Imagine my surprise, however, when some months later I conducted an online search to see what information might be turning up about my own book and discovered another Kuhns writing on the subject of detectives.

Luke Benjamin Kuhns, born like myself in one of the Midwestern “I” states, apparently now lives in London and has written a number of Sherlock Holmes stories among other works. Given that I love London, and collect Sherlock Holmes books, I’m envious. I’ve not read any of his writing, yet, but I hope to remedy that soon. Likewise I see that Eleanor Kuhns’s amateur investigator Will Rees has returned and will have to search out the further installments of his series. (As a sidenote, the way that Rees is drawn into the role of detective by chance but gradually develops a reputation as something of an informal expert has a surprising basis in history; another tradesman in the young United States started his eventual professional detective career in much the same way.)

Perhaps some day we can all have a very exclusive authors’ conference. 😉

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I’m not writing about Sherlock. But…

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 11, 2013

In writing a book about real-life great detectives, you could say that I was almost writing a rebuttal to Sherlock Holmes, even an anti-Sherlock (in the sense of antimatter). In a way that’s true, too; I resisted including his name in the title (a decision which any publisher other than myself probably would have vetoed for the sake of sales) and tried to avoid making reference to him in the book, any more often than was really necessary.

And yet, he just kept finding his way in again and again.

But, then, the whole thing began with Sherlock Holmes in a sense, or nearly so. I have become a fan of the character, in recent years, and had I not been one I might not have stopped in the middle of The Mystery of Blue Train to take offense at Hercule Poirot’s declaring himself “probably the greatest detective in the world.” Had I not done that, I might never have considered the question that followed from the recognition that this was, of course, an exceptionally geeky response on my part. Instead, attempting to check my descent into “who’s stronger” comic book nerditry (endearing though it is) I thought of moving the question of “greatest detective” from fiction into the real world, and… here we are.

Looking at detective reality, however, doesn’t actually obscure Sherlock from view, truth be told. Read more…

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Runners-up: Alphonse Bertillon

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 2, 2013

The case for considering Alphonse Bertillon in an examination of great detectives, and the reason for excluding him from my eventual final nine, are both neatly expressed in a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognize that I am myself an unpractical man, and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—’

‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be first?’ asked Holmes, with some asperity.

‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.’

‘Then had you better not consult him?’

‘I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone.’

Just so: among the broad universe of criminology, Alphonse Bertillon is absolutely a major figure, but, within criminology’s more practical sphere, i.e. detection, Bertillon cannot be ranked with either Sherlock Holmes or his real-life counterparts because Bertillon was not a practicing detective.

Even so, one encounters Bertillon’s name consistently in studying the early history of detection, and with good reason. Bertillon was more a theorist, or perhaps a technician, but as such he was unquestionably an important influence on the profession.

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Jack the Ripper at 125

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 1, 2013

The autumn of 2013 will mark 125 years since London’s infamous Whitechapel murders, i.e. the crimes of Jack the Ripper. (Do I really need to provide a link to explain this?)

As the crimes were never officially solved, they have remained fertile soil for speculation ranging from serious to fanciful. One perennial favorite, nearer to the latter category, is the intersection of the Ripper’s debut with that of another product of late-1880s England, i.e. Sherlock Holmes. Based on my own observations of the Sherlockian world and its post-Doyle extensions to The Canon, there are three themes to which pseudo-Watsons are repeatedly drawn: 1) that Holmes had further involvement with The Woman, Irene Adler, after “A Scandal in Bohemia,” 2) that Holmes lived to great old age, surviving even into the 1940s, and 3) that Holmes investigated the Ripper crimes.

I’ve actually considered making a study of examples of this third theme; I don’t think I’m actually going to get around to it but I’ve counted at least a dozen formally-published Holmes-vs-Ripper stories, not counting works in other media. (There is apparently a video game based on the concept, now.) It isn’t particularly mysterious why this theme should intrigue writers, so many times over. The Whitechapel murders are one of the best-remembered crimes of relatively modern times, they were never officially solved in reality, but in fiction the greatest and (even in reality) best-remembered detective of all time was right there in London, practicing at the time. It was close; had Doyle waited a couple of more years the “what if” of Holmes and the Ripper might have required a double re-imagining. As it happened, though, the great detective was there, conceptually, even though he didn’t actually physically exist. It seems absolutely inescapable that Sherlock Holmes would thus have been drawn to investigate the most notorious mystery of his whole era.

The curious thing, though, is that this is much less a product of Holmes’ subsequent eclipse of his various real contemporaries in the realm of “great detective” as it might seem. Sherlock Holmes, though only introduced a couple of years before, was already notable enough by 1888 that Doyle was even asked at the time about how his character would solve the murders. Meanwhile, even though nearly half of the real investigators highlighted in Brilliant Deduction might be called “British detectives” in some sense or other—and even though the Whitechapel murders fell right in the middle of the real-life great detectives’ golden age—every one of them seems to have managed to miss the Autumn of Terror.

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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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