Book Review: The Expressman and the Detective (1874) by Allan Pinkerton (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Expressman and the Detective (1874) by Allan Pinkerton

Three Stars out of Five

Think: Dragnet meets Mission Impossible in 1859. Pinkerton—yes, that Pinkerton—alleges this is the true account of a major criminal investigation conducted by his agency in 1859. Even Otto Penzler in his 2014 introduction allows the cases were “highly sensationalized.” Despite that, we see here an early example of a genre, detective fiction, which still thrives.

This particular saga, set in antebellum Montgomery, Alabama and the Northeast, revolves around a complex sting worked on the assumed culprit in a pair of inside express swindles netting $50,000. In today’s money that would be millions of dollars. Its style is similar to early detective works produced by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but has the advantage of the titular author (the book may have been ghostwritten) being a pioneer of criminal detection and spy craft.

“Modern” technology (the telegraph) and a large cast of undercover agents, some of whom were ignorant of each other’s identity, contribute to a fast paced, complex plot.

By today’s standards the narrative drags, but it endures as a period piece of antebellum social mores and human relations. Of course, since Pinkerton published the tale after the Civil War, many who might refute his story would be gone with the wind.

A curious detail is that few blacks appear and little reference is made to slavery, beyond the authors vow that he abhorred the institution. The N-word pops up several times (in quotation marks), usually referring to the second class car on trains where Pinkerton’s “shadows” hid in plain site from their quarry. None of his agents were black; German immigrants were treated as such (and ignored) by Southern whites. A few loose ends left dangling only add to the verisimilitude as a crafted story would have a more dramatic climax.

Not light reading, but an interesting tale.