17 Mar 2008
Allan Pinkerton embodied a number of American traits. He was a revolutionary, fleeing his native Scotland with his wife ahead of arrest for being a Chartist; he reinvented himself in boomtown Chicago from barrel-maker to private detective, one of the nation’s first; he crossed money and power lines working for the railroads and, during the Civil War, for the Union Army and President Lincoln; and made sure everyone knew it, self-promoting himself so effectively that the unblinking eye that was the symbol of his company was detached from his name and entered the culture as the private eye.
He also spoke truth to power, helping run slaves to their freedom on the Underground Railroad, and spoke power to truth, as the company founded by the agitator for the rights of man became a union-buster for the railroad barons. That, too, makes him an American.
Out of all this material, comes Pinkerton’s Secret, a sometimes off-kilter “memoir” by Eric Lerner. The Pinkerton in this book is a masterful fictional character. He’s a man of strong passions, a cocksure sense of himself, and a view of American history that would warm the heart of a besotted leftist steeped in Chomsky and Zinn. He doesn’t think much of the Founding Fathers (“While that addled inventor Ben Franklin and his Yankee friends were going on about tea taxes, Washington and Jefferson and Madison were hiding in some back room of Independence Hall, giggling like girls over the scam they were pulling up here in Philadelphia”); nor of Lincoln, who he called among other things “a snake-oil salesman.” “If you cut through Lincoln’s twaddle, you found nothing except a cauldron of ambition.”
But at heart, he’s soft pillows and lace. The lace is made of stainless-steel and spiky, and the pillows are formed from concrete, but it turns out that Pinkerton has a weakness for female approval, particularly from one Mrs. Kate Warne. She was his first female detective, and from the beginning, he was smitten with her charms. During their first interview, as he quizzed her about her belief in god and the need for a detective to deceive, he notes, “Her body seemed to press outward against her dress, her female form demanding my attention.”
Let’s face it, when you’re married to a woman who believes “her primary mission as a servant of God is to prevent Allan Pinkerton from ending up in Hell” and will only have sex with you on the Sabbath, it’s not surprising that another woman would draw Allan’s eye.
Mrs. Warne got the job.
Pinkerton’s Secret takes us on an episodic tour of American history, told completely through Pinkerton’s eyes. This cuts both ways. He tells us exactly what he wants us to see — and from the above examples his opinions can be as bracing as a shot of whiskey, neat — but he’s equally adept at what he wants to leave out. He goes into detail about his abolitionist work before the war, when his house was a stop on the Underground Railway, and how he and his agents uncovered the plot to kill President Lincoln on his way to Washington. There’s also nothing about his shoddy intelligence work for Gen. George McClellan during the first great campaign against the Confederations, in which his overestimation of Lee’s army gave the general reason enough to delay battle and cry out for more reinforcements.
Instead, between recountings of glorious episodes, Pinkerton describes his relationship with Mrs. Warne, in the words of that time, “grew warm.” There are moments of passion —”She lifted her left leg over my hip and reached down for my cock as our eyes remained wide open. Then I was inside her.” — but not nearly as often as you’d think. Because what surfaces is a classic soap opera set-up: they love each other, but she’s engaged to Timothy Webster, another one of his agents, leaving him suspended between his deteriorating marriage and his passion for Mrs. Warne.
Because at heart, Pinkerton needed a woman’s approval: “when it comes to women, men are meagerly provisioned beasts who must beg for the fulfillment of their needs.” The man who, his wife observed bitterly, would violate the law on one hand while upholding it with the other, found himself trapped, whether by upbringing or social code, it didn’t matter, when it came to the delectable and alluring Mrs. Warne.
And that, in the end, is the central irony of Pinkerton’s story, that America’s detective couldn’t solve the greatest mystery of all: the needs of the human heart
PS: That was a lovely way to end the review, eh? But it seems I haven’t expressed a firm opinion about “Pinkerton’s Secret,” so let’s try again.
I liked Pinkerton as a character. He’s dogmatic, profane, and carries that self-assurence that seems to be a hallmark of pre-politically correct America. But I’m not so sure about the other characters. Mrs. Warne, Pinkerton’s wife, his boys who grow up to take over the company; maybe because we see them through his eyes, we find it hard to grasp their needs, their opinions. Pinkerton seems to get into the way. This could be intentional. It certainly is realistic. But it does remove the climax from the story. Just as in real life, as we tend to fade away in the end, so does Allan Pinkerton.
How did I get this book?: Review copy sent by publisher.
All categories are ranked 1-15 except for bonus, which is 1-10.
Bonus: 5 Lerner lets us into Pinkerton’s mind, with its angry mix of self-rightousness, justifications, rigid thinking and solitary despair.
What do these numbers mean?
Other links to “Pinkerton’s Secret”
- Eric Lerner’s website for “Pinkerton’s Secret”
- Lerner talks about the book at Armchair Interview: “I began to wonder if the novelist does not have a better opportunity than the historian does to uncover certain truths”
- Review from The New York Times: “… the self-righteousness of this fictional incarnation is a little hard to take.”
- Review from Bookgasm: “Not quite a thriller but far, far too unsentimental to even qualify as venturing anywhere near a romance, ‘Secret’ is a politically charged, partially factual account of this country’s grandaddy of do-gooders, even when he did bad.”