The Fictional Allan J. Pinkerton

Created (well, fictionalized, anyway) by Eric Lerner, Michael P. Spradlin and Daniel Stashower

“Dainties and a gun. Oh, she was irresistible.”
Pinkerton’s Secret by Eric Lerner

f course, more than one smart aleck in the back of the room will be tempted to suggest that most of what ALLAN J. PINKERTON wrote about his own 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, Pinkerton’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 some of it is just 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.

* * * * *

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 this piece of high-flying hokum, it’s the Old West of the 1880s, and disgraced former Civil War hero and U.S. Cavalry Captain Jonas P. Hollister is nursing his wounds in the federal hoosegow in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sticking to some cockamanie story about bloody-sucking demons who laid waste to eleven men under his command.

It seems nobody believes him. 

Then up pops Allan J. Pinkerton (yeah, THAT Allan J. Pinkerton, the original private eye himself) with an order for Jonas’ release. Pinkerton thinks the crazy vet’s story might not be so crazy after all. In fact, it may tie in with a case he’s working on: the slaughter of a group of Colorado miners.

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.

Suffice it to say that Blood Riders is a real mish-mash of genres, a jacked-up blend of The Wild Wild West , The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Justin Cronin’s 2010 bestseller The Passage.

* * * * *

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. 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 covers 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. in fact, the book drew pretty much rave reviews, from places like The New York Times Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly and even  Harlan Coben, who blurbed “The world’s most famous private eye saves Abraham Lincoln’s life–and perhaps the Union itself? Sounds like fiction, but in Daniel Stashower’s riveting new book, it’s all true. It’s history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller.”

* * * * *

A fictionalized Pinkerton showed up once more, in 2017’s Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister, although this time he’s not the main character. That honour goes to Kate Warne, one of the agency’s real-life agents.

The book chronicles the adventures of one of that agency’s first female ops, a determined young widow trying to scrape by on the mean streets of 1850s Chicago. After convincing the Pinkerton himself to hire her as a detective, she soon finds herself right in the thick of things, one of the key players in the early days of the agency, with a penchant for undercover work.



Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply