cover image Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland

Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland

Beau Riffenburgh. Viking, $32.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-670-02546-6

This energetic biography sheds light on a master undercover operative for the famed Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. The iconic sleuth of his time, first hired by Pinkerton in 1873, McParland made his name (as well as the company’s) investigating the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irishmen whose crimes terrorized the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. McParland went on to become Pinkerton’s western superintendent and oversaw investigations into Butch Cassidy and the Western Federation of Miners. Though the idealized McParland would appear in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett, the man himself proves far more flawed: he perjured himself to assure the sentencing of his victims, and often helped shrewd industrialists exploit an abused labor force. As a result, historians have both revered and lambasted him. Riffenburgh (Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) takes up the “conundrum” of McParland’s moral character and transforms legal and business records into a cinematic adventure through meticulous research. However, despite the momentum of the Molly Maguires’ narrative in the book’s first half, the episodes of detection from later in McParland’s career are disconnected. Despite these lags, Riffenburgh brings a forgotten rough-and-tumble world to life. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Nov.)