"Dainties and a gun. Oh, she was irresistible."
Of course, more than one student of history will be tempted to suggest that most of what ALLAN J. PINKERTON wrote about his exploits was fiction, anyway, but over the years, other authors -- occasionally with Pinkerton's blessings -- have jumped on the bandwagon.
But Eric Lerner upped the ante considerably in 2008 with the publication of Pinkerton's Secret, the first in a proposed new series of "romantic fictions" detailing the exploits of the founder of the world's most famous detective agency and arguably the world's most famous real-life private eye.
In the book, narrated in first person by Pinkerton himself, the American Civil War is about to tear the country apart and Pinkerton -- a former political activist who was forced to flee his native Scotland -- allies himself with John Brown, the abolitionist cause and the Underground Railway.
Meanwhile, he's become romantically in a steamy but secret affair with pretty young Kate Warne, the Pinkerton's first female operative. Together they work both sides of the law, track down Rebel spies, save Lincoln's life and establish the Secret Service. Some of it, of course, is true; a matter of historical record. And it was a lot of fun.
But the affair? The secret alliance with Brown?
The blurb tags it as "a dazzling romp through the little-known life of an American icon," and there's no denying Lerner has crafted an entertaining and enjoyable book here -- or that Pinkerton led a colourful, adventurous life, full of plenty of unanswered questions and intriguing conflicts. But what really happened? How much of this book is based on fact? What did Lerner extrapolate, and what did he extrapolate from,and what did he just wing?
The author's memoir, Journey of Insight Meditation (1976) relates his experiences in Buddhist monasteries and communities in Asia and America, and he later served as an editor of the Buddhist journal, Zero. He went on to a lengthy career as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer and now lives and works with "culturally deprived" children in Boston. He's even cool enough to namedrop Leonard Cohen in the acknowledgements.
But nowhere does his CV mention "historian." I dunno. Maybe Max Allan Collins has spoiled historical mysteries for me. But when you read any of Collins' historical mysteries, be it his acclaimed Nate Heller P.I. series or any of his many other stabs at historical fiction, it's clear Collins does his homework -- the books are inevitably followed by a lengthy afterword, detailing his research and his sources. He opens the lid and lets us look at the works, charting what is fact, what is supposition and what is good ol' -- and unapologetic -- poetic license. It adds a whole other dimension of enjoyment (and veracity) to his books; something that Lerner's book, alas, doesn't.
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Unfortunately, there never was a follow-up to Lerner's novel, but 2012 saw the inclusion of Pinkerton in Michael P. Spradlin's western/horror hybrid, Blood Riders. In it, Pinkerton seeks the release of Jonas P. Hollister, a disgraced Civil War hero and U.S. Calvary Captain who's doing time in the federal pen in Leavenworth for some cockamanie story about bloody-sucking demons who laid waste to eleven men under his command.
Pinkerton thinks there's a link between that incident and a case he's working on involving several Colorado miners who were similarly slaughtered, and so Hollister and Pinkerton set off, along with Oliver Winchester, the gun manufacturer, a beautiful babe (of course) and some kooky foreigner called Abraham Van Helsing who's got this wacky ideas about some bloodsucking ghouls.
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Far more historically accurate (I hope) is The Hour of Peril (2013) by Daniel Stashower, acclaimed mystery author, biographer and historian, winner of the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony awards and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction expects. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP: The Magazine and National Geographic Traveler, among others.
In this novel (billed as "narrative non-fiction"), Stashower plans to cover much of the same ground as Lerner; namely the story behind, as the PR pack accompanying my ARC so proudly proclaims, "The First Time They Tried to Kill Lincoln."
Which, if you ask me, would make a far better title. And there's an extensive bibliography at the back, so it looks like Stashower has done his homework.
I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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