Women and the home front

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 30, 2013

One further thought, this last weekend of Women’s History Month, inspired by some comments from Mr. Jerry Clark at our recent store co-appearance. Discussing the “Pizza Bomber” case, a byzantine, years-long investigation chronicled in the book he and Ed Palattella co-authored, Clark spoke briefly of the personal toll such cases can exact.

Unsurprisingly, such work can stretch those involved awfully thin. Even with dedicated, well-organized teams like those of the modern FBI, the individuals at the center of a major crime investigation can find work taking over their life; as Clark noted, one may “clock out” and go home at night but one doesn’t ever really get away from a case like “the pizza bomber” until it’s truly and finally over. Meanwhile, stress and exhaustion can take a toll, not only on an investigator but on those around him or her. Particularly one’s family.

I don’t recall Mr. Clark’s exact words, but the gist of one further comment stuck with me, too. I believe it was, more or less, that an all-absorbing criminal investigation can sorely test personal relationships but, at the same time, strong family support can be invaluable in making it through.

This gave me pause because nearly every detective highlighted in Brilliant Deduction was a “family man.”

Which may not be that odd, certainly for the time period, but it’s striking how this contrasts with fiction. Sherlock Holmes—at least in the canonical stories—was a borderline-misogynist bachelor. I’ve not read a lot of Poirot novels but I’m not aware of any Mrs. Poirot. The 20th century American fictional detective archetype, exemplified by Spade and Marlowe, is decidedly unattached.

By contrast, and for all the many ways that they differed, Burns, Pollaky, the Pinkertons, Isaiah Lees and Ellis Parker all had longlasting marriages and multiple children. Of the exceptions, Vidocq sought a supportive wife, even if it took a few tries (and even if he was never particularly faithful). Jonathan Whicher, the only member of my select to spend the greater part of his career single (or possibly widowed), was also the one whose career arguably came the nearest to disaster. Coincidence? Perhaps, but again, it does make one think.

Asked once about the secret to his own mostly happier career, Ellis Parker credited “a good wife and a contented mind.” It may be that this was less of an aw-shucks soundbite than I have assumed. As I have noted, women make few appearances in Brilliant Deduction. But perhaps they played a larger role in the accomplishments I’ve chronicled than is immediately apparent. Without Joan Pinkerton, would Allan have worked himself to the point of collapse years earlier than he eventually did? Without Jane Lees, would Isaiah Lees have been able to bear up for nearly a half-century of confronting some of humanity’s worst? Without Annie Burns, would Bill have been so determined in the face of doubters and detractors in case after case?

I don’t know. And I’m certainly not suggesting that “supporting her man by managing the home” is woman’s “natural place” or anything of the sort, believe me. But it does seem like detective work offers some evidence, if anecdotal and nonscientific, that a supportive domestic partner—of whatever sex—may deserve credit for more valuable accomplishment than is often recognized.

Here’s to them.

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