The San Franciscan Connection

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 29, 2013

San Francisco’s brilliant, long-serving detective Isaiah Lees was well positioned to encounter many of Brilliant Deduction‘s other stars, from a four-dimensional perspective.

Geographically, Lees spent most of his career well outside my book’s largely Atlantic settings. Before the first Transcontinental railroad line was completed with the famous Golden Spike in 1869, California might almost have been as far from London or New York as Australia, so slow and uncertain was crossing North America by land. In the decades after, San Francisco (the fortunate terminus of that first line) was somewhat less isolated, but Lees still worked a long distance from most of his peers, in space.

In time, however, Lees was right in their midst. His police career from 1853 to 1900 spans the busy center of the timeline I drew for my book (some day I’ll post it, along with a properly designed and typeset version). Other than Vidocq, who died a few years after Lees was sworn into the SFPD, and Ellis Parker, who accepted the office of Burlington County detective just six years before Lees retired, the active years of every other detective I’ve profiled overlap considerably with those of Isaiah Lees.

As a result, it’s very tempting to speculate about connections that might have existed, even though there is only one confirmed…

On record, Lees exchanged information with the Pinkertons and communicated directly with both William and Robert; William met Lees personally in San Francisco during their tandem efforts on the 1896 Nevada Bank forgery. That’s it, though, in terms of what’s on the record. There’s no evidence Lees ever had any contact with the Pinkertons’ father, Allan. William Burns was actually in San Francisco investigating an extraordinary theft from the US mint, in 1901… but as Lees had retired from the city’s police the year before, and was in the last year of his life, there’s little reason to assume any meeting between the two. Had Lees been granted several more years, he very likely would have taken notice of Burns, at least, when the latter returned to San Francisco for a sprawling series of corruption investigations. A meeting might well have been unavoidable in that what-if context. As it is, however, the two were probably like ships passing in the night.

Yet, curiously, even though Lees mostly operated at great distance from his American peers, there is compelling reason to speculate on meetings with some of his European counterparts. In 1878, Lees made a once-in-a-lifetime voyage back to the Europe of his birth, and in addition to (presumably) more ordinary tourist stops, he paid calls on both the Paris Sûreté and London’s Scotland Yard. Vidocq was 20 years in his grave, by then, but two of London’s greatest detectives were both alive and well, and yet to retire.

Jonathan Whicher would settle into his brief (second) retirement in Battersea in 1880, and “Paddington” Pollaky would commence his own very long retirement in Brighton two years later. But in 1878, both were still active detectives in London. Moreover, both were fairly well-known detectives, and had some connection with Scotland Yard though neither was directly employed by it at the time; on the whole it almost seems more implausible that Lees avoided both men than that he met either of them.

Lees was devoted to his craft, and kept informed about news of crime and policing. It’s difficult to imagine that he would have arrived in London in 1878 without knowing something of the astonishing Tichborne Claimant case, and at least being aware of the ex-Scotland Yard detective who was at the center of its resolution. Even if Lees didn’t make any special effort to seek out Whicher, the opportunity for a casual run-in was there. Whicher may have left Scotland Yard under something of a cloud, initially, but even aside from the Tichborne case’s effect on his reputation, he probably never lost contact with old friends on the force. It isn’t especially fanciful that Whicher still spent time at whatever public house or other hangouts the city detectives frequented. It would be a coincidence if some of those detectives took their distinguished visiting colleague from America out for a pint and happened to run into an old friend and notable private detective, Whicher, but not an unbelievable coincidence. If it did chance to happen, I envision the English-born police detective Lees and the English ex-police detective Whicher getting along famously.

An encounter with “Paddington” Pollaky seems a bit less of a natural fit; Pollaky had long been in private practice and was, moreover, just so enigmatic to all appearances. A run-in with Lees is still possible, though. Pollaky was likewise well-known, certainly among the detective society, and while he had never been a Scotland Yard detective he had long association with the force in one role or another. As grounds for an imaginary story, a meeting between Lees and Pollaky might be even more interesting, too; Pollaky chose to retire early, but he was considerably younger than Whicher and nearly the same age as Lees. Their different cultural backgrounds, meanwhile, might have produced a spark or two. For anyone who feels like penning an offbeat historical mystery, an Isaiah Lees – “Paddington” Pollaky team-up could offer rich potential.

In reality, one probably never took place. But, it might have… and I suppose we’ll just never know.

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