Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: The Burglar's Fate and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton

This holiday, I was very lucky, at the Great Dickens Fair, to score a beautiful original edition of Allan Pinkerton's The Burglar's Fate and the Detectives. It is a true account of an investigation conducted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (now a respected security firm) of a bank robbery in Geneva, Illinois.

Modern whodunnits usually try and keep the reader interested by hiding the identity of the criminal until the very end. But this is no ordinary whodunnit; it can be seen more as a stylized journal of an investigation, written by the man who invented the detection methods that would later lay the foundation for the modern FBI, such as shadowing and undercover work. And, as Pinkerton tells us in the preface, "[n]o touch of fiction obscures this truthful recital."

What we get in lieu of a whodunnit is a sometimes dry, sometimes too picturesque account of how various "operatives"--agents working for Pinkerton--are chasing the robbers. They have some very telling clues as to the identity of the burglars right from the start, when they are given reason to suspect that one of the bank clerks collaborated with the intruders. Much of their time from then on is spent on the hot trail of the suspects, befriending their family members and business partners, and on one occasion, even wooing a servant girl in the home of one of the suspects' families. We also get a moderate dosage of racism and antisemitism along the way.

Arrest scene: Wood engraving from the original edition.

The relationship between the detectives and the formal police, nascent as it may have been, is fascinating, too. The detectives operate in an odd space between the law and its shadow. When intercepting letters, they do not open them (doing so would be a federal offense), but when apprehending one of the suspects, they assume arrest powers, avail themselves of the hospitality of the local constable, and even remunerate him ("handsomely") for his services. One assumes that the mythical reputation Pinkerton had at the time provided him with respect and authority that today would be granted to private actors only under unusual circumstances.

The interrogation scene is also fascinating and brings to mind Richard Leo's analysis of police interrogation techniques in Police Interrogation and American Justice. The detectives present the suspects with information about accomplices in their custody--some of it untrue--guilt them with information about their relatives, and promise them judicial leniency if they collaborate. They also reserve the questions for times at which they have more details they can use to persuade the suspect to talk. The stubborn interrogation bears fruit, and the suspect breaks down and confesses.

What makes this book such fun to read, despite the sometimes uncomfortable racism and antisemitism in the description of witnesses and minor characters, is its effort to create an image of uncompromising professionalism to match the sophistication and audacity of the burglars. Two ideas come through, loud and clear: The criminals are serious, planning, cunning, and calculating, and they are deserving of this amount of attention, expense and time from so much trained manpower. This raises a lot of interesting questions about the origins of modern policing and what relationship they bear to the stop-and-frisk techniques, and car patrols, in search of nonviolent drug offenders.

Want to experience a bit of proto-policing yourself? Read the entire thing, from beginning to end, with reproductions of the original artwork, for free, using the Project Gutenberg edition. 

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