2013 · 3 stars · non-fiction

mini-review: Pinkerton’s Great Detective by Beau Riffenburgh

Title: Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland
Author: Beau Riffenburgh
Pub Date: November 18, 2013
Source: pitched by the publicist/finished hardcover
Summary: The operatives of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency were renowned for their skills of subterfuge, infiltration, and investigation, none more so than James McParland. So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included the cunning detective in a story along with Sherlock Holmes.

Riffenburgh digs deep into the recently released Pinkerton archives to present the first biography of McParland and the agency’s cloak-and-dagger methods. Both action packed and meticulously researched, Pinkerton’s Great Detective brings readers along on McParland’s most challenging cases: from young McParland’s infiltration of the murderous Molly Maguires gang in the case that launched his career to his hunt for the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch to his controversial investigation of the Western Federation of Mines in the assassination of Idaho’s former governor.

Filled with outlaws and criminals, detectives and lawmen, Pinkerton’s Great Detective shines a light upon the celebrated secretive agency and its premier sleuth.
Genre: Non-fiction, Biography

Two of my guilty pleasures are a good detective story and biographies. Pinkerton’s Great Detective delivers both in one tidy package, proving once again that sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.

James McParland, renowned sleuth, had such a mastery over his secrets that his own birthday is not known. Early on in the book Riffenburgh addresses this by admitting that for a biography, there might be more than a few inaccuracies. Because of this, Pinkerton’s Great Detective winds up being less about that great detective, and more about Pinkerton, his agency, Charlie Siringo (a fascinating man in his own right!), and the cases McParland investigated: the Molly Maguires, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes an appearance.

Pinkerton’s Great Detective begins in Ireland where McParland was born and raised along with eleven siblings. While McParland was still a baby the Great Famine struck, devastating Ireland’s potato crops and leaving millions of people starving – if not dead. When he was still young, McParland left his home for America, a land not exactly warm and welcoming to the Irish at that time. The Civil War left entire cities ravaged, yet James was still determined to strike a new life – literally.

In his undercover work in the Molly Maguire case, James adopted the name Jim McKenna and constructed an entirely new identity. He lived and breathed McKenna, going so far as to invent false arrest records. This was the case that made his career and Riffenburgh clearly did his research: a sizeable portion of the novel is devoted to the Molly Maguires – or MMs as McParland referred to the gang – and rightfully so. McParland’s time spent in the Old West is also covered in remarkable detail.

Readers hesitant to try non-fiction need not worry: although Pinkerton’s Great Detective is painstakingly researched, Riffenburgh doesn’t lose focus of the story. The book isn’t bogged down with technical jargon or unnecessary details. While the ambiguity and inaccuracy does detract from the story at times the book remains action-packed and entertaining. After all, how could a story about a spy be boring?

Pinkerton’s Great Detective will easily appeal to fans of a wide range of subjects: history, the Old West, detectives and true crime. Are you a reader new to or curious about non-fiction? Pinkerton’s Great Detective is a wonderful starting point with its easy-to-follow narrative (Erik Larson’s books come to mind) and intriguing characters.


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