The Civil War and the great detectives

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 9, 2013

I read once that “There will never be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War.” Apparently this is a Gertrude Stein quote. I would say that it also, if arguable as a hard fact, certainly expresses a real truth. One hundred fifty years later the Civil War continues to fascinate us.

It was, also, kind of a big deal at the time.

Which probably doesn’t need illustration, though just how big it was may, perhaps, escape some people. I recall years ago, a friend returning from South Carolina where it seemed to her like a cease-fire had only been declared the week before, and then during our conversation remarking “well, that wasn’t a big deal for people up here [Iowa], was it?” In response I suggested that, actually, it was a very big deal, even up in Iowa. (Wikipedia suggests that it was, indeed, a proportionately bigger deal in Iowa than in any other state by one measure.) Still, I can see how one might think that the Civil War was a very regional phenomenon. Nearly all of the big set-piece battles that define a basic course of study were in the southeastern states, compared with which the total area of the “lower 48” states seems awfully big.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon of The Civil War was in fact even bigger, and it’s possible that the history of the great detectives examined in Brilliant Deduction constitutes as effective an illustration of this as anything.

While I find it interesting, of course, I am by no means a Civil War buff and I did not set out to emphasize a Civil War theme in my book about detectives. There absolutely is such a theme there, however, and I believe it simply emerged naturally owing to the enormous scale of the event.

Allan Pinkerton supported the antislavery cause which eventually became bound up with the war, but he was also a private businessman and a very busy one, moreover, in the early 1860s. Despite this, the Civil War forms a major chapter in his career, for more reasons than one; one or two of his wartime roles might be considered elective but the combination of them all together suggests that this was just not something he could have avoided entirely. There just was no way for Pinkerton, or for much of the country, to go about “business as usual” through the whole war.

Meanwhile, the second generation of the Pinkertons, William and Robert, were pulled in as well (assisting their father with espionage missions). As was Isaiah Lees, despite being considerably farther from the front lines than the Pinkertons’ Chicago, or Iowa. The main war spawned plenty of ancillary activities, including official naval efforts and semi-official privateering, even thousands of miles from Washington and Richmond. Lees thwarted an attempt at the latter, in California, while even in London his contemporary “Paddington” Pollaky was busily dispatching reports to Ambassador Henry Sanford on both, as well as varied other Confederate activity.

Brilliant Deduction is not entirely concerned with Civil War events, by any means; Vidocq died before war broke out, and Jonathan Whicher carried on his life and work in London without any obvious incursion by the hostilities in America. Still, the war turns up so often in the middle of the book that when the next detective with no Civil War stories—William Burns, born 1861—turns up, I couldn’t help remarking on how this set Burns apart, generationally.

Moreover, as one further indication of how unique the Civil War was, at least as an American experience, one might consider the contrast between its part in Brilliant Deduction and that of World War I. Three of my book’s cast were active in the latter war, two even in their prime, but William Pinkerton’s and William Burns’s associations with the Great War seem little more than footnotes compared with detectives’ parts in the Civil War; Ellis Parker, to all appearances, carried on through 1914-1918 little differently from any other five-year period in his career.

Other wars have been bigger, costlier, or more influential, certainly. Still, there will never be anything more interesting in America—or any war more interesting in great detectives’ history—than that Civil War.

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