By John Walton

The University of Chicago Press. 219 pages. $25. ISBN 978-0-226-30826-5 (hardback)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“The facts of the detective industry and the fictions of the culture industry continue to grow from a common root and intermingle as they grow.”

There is truth in those words that occur near the beginning of John Walton’s interesting survey of both the growth of private detective agencies and the nature of fictional portrayals of freelance investigators in America. But it’s necessary to point to the large differences between what private detectives got up to in real life and what their counterparts did in novels and short stories. There were all kinds of fictional investigators, one of the most famous being Sherlock Holmes, of course, and a series of anthologies edited by Hugh Greene under the general title of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes could be a good place to start, at least with regard to late-19th Century and early-20th Century fiction, for anyone venturing into this world for the first time. One volume does specifically focus on American “rivals” of the great British practitioner of crime investigation, so it is relevant to the book under review. The Legendary Detective is largely concerned with what took place in the United States as private detective agencies grew in response to social and political developments in that country, and writers produced novels and short stories to cater for a readership that wanted easily available and easy-to-read pulp fiction.

Private detective agencies were established in America largely in response to the problems created by the rapid expansion of the country in the 19th century, particularly after the Civil War. The population soared, new towns were created, and there were levels of lawlessness that official police forces, where they existed in the early days, couldn’t cope with. Private detectives were a product of urban living. Some of them dealt with cases such as divorce and related matters, hence the derogatory term “peeper” to describe a private detective as someone peeping through a keyhole to catch a wife or husband in the act of adultery. They might also deal with crimes like fraud or small-scale theft, but rarely, if ever, with murder. That was the prerogative of the established police forces. If they could, private detectives would work in tandem with local police by passing information to them. By doing that they could hope for some degree of co-operation from the police.

But the main thrust of private detection was in the direction of industrial identification and information. Employers hired private agencies to spy on their workers by infiltrating agents into the workplace. That way they could check on possible thefts by workers, and obtain details about attempts to organise unions and plan strikes. Industrial relations were often beset with difficulties in 19th and 20th century America. Low wages, bad working conditions, dictatorial bosses, and poor housing (often owned by employers) pushed workers into militant action in which the threat and use of force was never far from the surface. Employers responded by forming what were sometimes tantamount to heavily armed private armies. They also turned to the bigger private detective agencies such as Pinkerton’s or the Burns group for help. They could sometimes supply hundreds of detectives to guard property, intimidate workers, and break strikes. American labour disputes were noted for being violent affairs, and deaths on the picket-lines and elsewhere were common. The agencies recruited men from saloons and street-corners for use as strikebreakers. They had no scruples about who they killed and injured. I’m reminded of the American capitalist who, when asked if he was worried by the threat from the working-class, said: “What threat? I can buy one half of the working-class to shoot down the other half.”

Walton provides a long list of disputes which involved the employment of violence by both sides. There was the use of dynamite, as in the famous case in Idaho when the former governor of the state was assassinated. Several officials from the Western Federation of Miners, including the legendary Big Bill Haywood, were put on trial but acquitted after their defence team exposed examples of jury tampering and perjury. There was the Haymarket Square Riot when a bomb was thrown that killed policemen and civilians. Anarchists were the accused this time and several found guilty and hanged, but some people questioned whether they had really been responsible for the outrage. Charles Siringo, though employed by Pinkerton’s, later said that some of his colleagues gave perjured testimony. It wasn’t unknown for the police, both private and official, to plant explosives and then accuse union agitators of being the guilty men. Down in West Virginia, in a small mining town called Matewan, seven Baldwin-Felts detectives and three townspeople were killed in a shoot-out in 1920 between the private eyes and the local Police Chief(sympathetic to the strikers), backed up by armed miners. I remember when I visited West Virginia years ago being told by an American friend that old people in Matewan still spat on the ground at the mention of Baldwin-Felts.    

I pointed out earlier that, if you take away the industrial work, the private detective agencies were largely limited to divorce enquiries and similar personal matters. Major crimes, such as murder and large-scale theft, were handled by the official police force. So, the idea of the private eye being “a romanticised loner in pursuit of devious criminals” is a construct of the fiction industry. There were some individual private detectives who rose above the rank-and-file of routine strikebreakers and keyhole peepers. James McParland made his name by infiltrating the Molly Maguires, a notorious secret society active in the coalfields of Pennsylvania and not averse to violence to further their aims. And there was Charles Siringo, known as the “cowboy detective,” who specialised in tracking down train robbers and cattle thieves. Both worked for the Pinkerton Agency. Siringo does seem to have tried to function within ethical and legal barriers, but McParland was quite prepared to rig evidence, or bully and browbeat witnesses into giving false testimony, to secure a conviction.

Such men, and one or two women, were the exceptions to the rule that routine matters occupied many detectives in the real world. In the unreal world of fiction, however, private detectives came in all shapes and sizes. Some were endowed with almost magical properties for solving crimes, others applied logic and rarely strayed far from their homes to deal with complex cases, while many did it the hard way on the streets. Nick Carter was honest and intelligent and pure in mind and body. He was held up as an example to the youth of America. But later, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, smoked, drank, had dalliances with various ladies, and took a cynical view of mankind in general and those in power in particular.

This modern portrayal of the private eye largely dates from the 1920s and 1930s. It was the age of the famous Black Mask magazine and its numerous imitators. But the idea of the individual investigator probing into criminal acts and, one way or another, getting their man, or woman, had been established long before the 1930s. Walton traces the origins of detective stories back to Edgar Allan Poe and three tales written in the 1840s, “The Murders in the rue Morgue” among them. He refers to various novels, including Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) as competing for the title of the first in the field. By the late 19th century, novels and stories featuring a variety of detectives, some official, many not, were pouring from the presses. I’ve already mentioned the anthologies edited by Hugh Greene which select their material from a roughly thirty year period leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and if nothing else give an idea of the range of the stories. And the detectives.

In a way, as the appetite for detective stories grew, so the operations of real-life detective agencies tended to be restricted as federal and state authorities in the United States looked into their activities and passed laws to contain them. Regular national and local police forces had been established. Nowadays, Walton notes, the private agencies provide “guards, patrols, watchmen, payroll protection, store and hotel detectives, security personnel for exhibitions, fairs, races, athletic events.” They also offer “small-scale detection” for accounting firms and insurance companies. And presumably still handle matrimonial work. Walton draws attention to one agency which, as the old-style services declined, turned to other areas of investigation: “Workmen’s compensation claims were their speciality, involving the use of cameras to unobtrusively evaluate disability claims.” I couldn’t help thinking that they may have given up on spying on union organisers, and strikebreaking, but were still in the business of acting for the bosses in disputes.

It’s the fictional detectives that catch the attention now, and I did have a feeling that Walton could, perhaps, have spent a little more time looking into the worlds of the private eyes in novels and short stories. Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade), and Ross MacDonald (Lew Archer) were not the only ones to produce a series of stories featuring a private eye as the hero. There are several books devoted to pulp writers, one of the most useful being Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential (Stark House, 2013). It covers a large number of novelists. Many writers have had a named private eye as central to their work. John D. MacDonald had a detective called Travis McGee; Richard S. Prather had Shell Scott; Bart Spicer had Carney Wilde. I could go on listing, but the main point is why many people found novels like these so readable? 

I suppose it has something to do with the liking for storytelling. A good crime novel follows a story through and brings it to a conclusion. And crime, like it or not, is interesting. The notion of a man (or sometimes a woman – think of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski) who brings the murderer or thief or whoever to justice has its attractions. Many crime novels and stories do have the official police at their centres, but the idea of the private investigator who doesn’t need to follow all the rules, though he can sometimes be almost in trouble for not doing so, somehow retains it fascination.  It’s perhaps that friction with the world in general, and often with authority, in particular, that appeals to the anarchist in us. We like to see ourselves as free spirits, though we know we aren’t, so we live vicariously through the activities of the private eyes. Don’t we wish we could go through life like this, putting things right and catching the guilty, and not having to justify our actions when doing it? We might get our hands a little dirty, but it would be in a good cause.

I found a great deal of interest in The Legendary Detective, though as mentioned earlier, more focus on the fiction could have been useful. But that may reflect my own concerns, and would have led to a different book than the one Walton wanted to write. What he has provided is informative, but one or two references did cause me to want to raise a few questions. Walton briefly refers to film-noir as dealing with the role of private detectives, but mentions Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, neither of which seem to me to really involve private eyes. He’s on safer ground with Chinatown, a classic example of a private eye trying to get to the bottom of a murky business.

And I hope Walton won’t take it amiss if I refer to some minor errors. Like so many others, he says on page 107 that the IWW were the International Workers of the World. They were, and still are, the Industrial Workers of the World. On page 49 he mentions the American intervention in Mexico in 1914. The USA had occupied Vera Cruz for a time in 1914, but the invasion Walton refers to took place in 1916 when Pershing led troops into Mexico in response to raids across the border by Pancho Villa’s men. And in connection with James McParland’s activities among the Molly Maguires, he says on page 37 that twenty of the conspirators were hanged, but on page 18 the number executed is said to be ten. None of these mistakes hold up the flow of the narrative, but I believe it’s best to draw attention to them. The book is generally well-written and has notes pointing to ample research into the histories of various private detective agencies. And there’s a useful bibliography.