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Book Review: <i>Pinkerton's Great Detective; The Amazing Life And Times Of James McParland</i> by Beau Riffenburgh

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the cover of the book

Back in the days of the actual wild west, America was actually wild. The landscape was unforgiving, the miners were rough, and the atmosphere was lawless. Who kept everything together?

The story

Eat your heart out, contemporary America. Your demise of the American Dream has nothing on how difficult your nation was when it was settling. Everybody's favourite TV show, Deadwood, gave us a little glimpse into the filth and squalor, the hardness, the lack of romanticism. Law was a kind of do-it-yourself gig, well before the time of organised policing and prosecution.

Enter the Pinkertons.

Deadwood had some of Pinkertons agents in it, and the name inspired a sort of fear if only to acknowledge the reach and influence the agency grew to have in a loose and young society held together in the roughest possible terms. But the agency earned its reputation through hard work and great employees, one of whom was James McParland – who's pretty much a legend.

McParland is so much the legend that Arthur Conan Doyle used a couple of McParland's inspired tales about his life as a detective in the odd Sherlock Holmes story. Some people doubt his greatness, implying that McParland was a story-teller and a drunk who didn't do all the stuff he said he did, and there is a lot of talk about the Pinkertons being a large and overbearing organisation who ruthlessly took from the little guy and tried to destroy the unions. Beau Riffenburgh meticulously sifted through still-existing written records to shape this story about the life of James McParland, including the cases that flung him to fame and what the existence of the Pinkertons meant for America.

The style

I have no problem making a confession to you; I am not that into non-fiction, particularly biographies. I blame my grandmother, bless her. When I was little I looked a dead ringer for Shirley Temple. My grandmother purchased me, and subsequently forced me to read, THREE SHIRLEY TEMPLE BIOGRAPHIES before I had even reached the tender age of ten. And the most exciting thing that chick did after she stopped making movies at fifteen was get married three times. I think it basically put me off reading biographies FOR LIFE. That out of the way, I was willing to give this one a crack.

And you know what? It was pretty good. Obviously, the setting lends itself to excitement. The Deadwood period is a pretty interesting one, or they wouldn't have made it into a ridiculously successful TV show. Riffenburgh appears to have been incredibly thorough with this research, and the book not only documents the collective personal backgrounds of the main players, but also tries to shed light on the living conditions, the way society was run, and the assumed or documented motivations of the major players. His reason for writing the book is in the introduction, and he answers his own thesis very well. Riffenburgh is trying to get to the man behind the legend of McParland. He's trying to put aside the mythology that has built up around the Pinkertons, because like any mythology, you're either a demon or a saint, there's no middle ground. Riffenburgh really gets into the nitty-gritty, and refers to notes, and McParland's reports sent to the Pinkertons at the time as well as court documentation etc, to piece together something that is far less reductionist than the standard narrative built up in this genre. Which is an impressive effort.

What I'm saying is, I'm not going to read biographies all the time or anything now, but this one was very decent. Way better than Shirley Temple's.

Who is this book for?

If you were like super fascinated by that wild west era, but you want to read the men not the mythology, this is definitely for you. It's a hefty number, that's for sure. It's not a light read, over in two days or anything. But it's worth the commitment.

In short


Title: Pinkerton's Great Detective
Author: Beau Riffenburgh
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670025461
Year published:
Pages: 400
Genre(s): History
Review Type: