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

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

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by Beau Riffenburgh
     
 

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The story of the legendary Pinkerton detective who took down the Molly Maguires and the Wild Bunch

The operatives of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency were renowned for their skills of subterfuge, infiltration, and investigation, none more so than James McParland. So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included

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Overview

The story of the legendary Pinkerton detective who took down the Molly Maguires and the Wild Bunch

The operatives of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency were renowned for their skills of subterfuge, infiltration, and investigation, none more so than James McParland. So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included the cunning detective in a story along with Sherlock Holmes.

Riffenburgh digs deep into the recently released Pinkerton archives to present the first biography of McParland and the agency’s cloak-and-dagger methods. Both action packed and meticulously researched, Pinkerton’s Great Detective brings readers along on McParland’s most challenging cases: from young McParland’s infiltration of the murderous Molly Maguires gang in the case that launched his career to his hunt for the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch to his controversial investigation of the Western Federation of Mines in the assassination of Idaho’s former governor.

Filled with outlaws and criminals, detectives and lawmen, Pinkerton’s Great Detective shines a light upon the celebrated secretive agency and its premier sleuth.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ben Macintyre
Locating the real James McParland amid the invective, acclaim and invention (including his own) is no easy task…Beau Riffenburgh…has made good use of the recently released Pinkerton archives to produce the fullest and fairest biography to date.
Publishers Weekly
09/09/2013
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.)
From the Publisher
“Locating the real James McParland amid the invective, acclaim and invention (including his own) is no easy task, and Beau Riffenburgh, author of '’Shackleton's Forgotten Expedition,’ has made good use of the recently released Pinkerton archives.... McParland was the prototype of a character that has become an adored part of America’s cultural landscape, the hard-boiled gumshoe, the lone sleuth in search of justice.”
—Ben McIntyre, The New York Times

“Revisiting archives and reintroducing historical context, Riffenburgh unfolds a measured, thought-provoking tale of mine-centered mayhem.”
American History 

“Thanks to Riffenburgh, it is not hard to divine the truth. McParland was neither a demon nor a saint. This is no copout. The man belonged to an age ravaged by violence and conflict, and his job as he understood it was to capture the guilty.... He was not always in the right, but he broke with the right less often and less deliberately than the criminals he hunted. That is as much heroism as Riffenburgh, a great detective in his own right, has managed to find in this alien, tumultuous time.”
The Christina Science Monitor

“Riffenburgh navigates… [a] moral quagmire deftly, contextualizing McParland and his far more violent time, while simultaneously deconstructing the image of the ‘Great Detective.’”
—The Daily Beast
 

Library Journal
09/15/2013
Of all the detectives who worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, James McParland is the most controversial, admired for his tenacity and cunning on the one hand but hated for his battle against the early coal miners' unions on the other. Riffenburgh here delves into the recently released archives of the Pinkerton Agency and finds not a shining hero or a mustache-twirling villain but a complex and fascinating individual. Born in Ireland around 1844, McParland came to America, joined the Pinkerton Agency in Chicago, and went undercover to bring down the Molly Maguires, a dangerous gang in Pennsylvania coal country. Success there led to a promotion and a move to Denver, where he worked with the railroad companies to capture Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch and tried to tie the murder of an Idaho governor to yet another miners' union. While not above the occasional lie or bribe, McParland here is revealed as a sincere fighter for justice, for whom the ends always justified the means. VERDICT Riffenburgh's academic tone may put off casual readers, but this colorful biography of a towering figure in American history will be appreciated by those interested in the American West and the American labor movement. [See Prepub Alert, 5/13/13.]—Deirdre Bray, Middletown P.L., OH
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-29
Straightforward biography of a man famous in his day for his work with the infamous Pinkerton's Detective Agency. In introducing the book, Riffenburgh (Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, 2006, etc.) notes that the legacy of his subject is murky, with history unable to decide whether James McParland (1843–1919) was a hero or a villain. "Thus, there is a clear need for a reassessment of the Great Detective," he writes. "Only through thorough study can a deeper understanding be gained of a man whose public persona was so divergent...." The author immediately gets down to that business, first briefly laying out McParland's early years before jumping into the history of his job with Pinkerton's. Riffenburgh focuses on McParland's two most sensational cases, both involving mining unions and violence possibly perpetrated by union members. The detective first infiltrated the Molly Maguires, a violent group that did not seem to be aligned with the union, and his informing on that group made him both famous and infamous. The case also seemed to cement for McParland that mine owners were upright citizens terrorized by violent employee factions, which informed his future work in union/mine cases. Later, in charge of Pinkerton's offices in the Western United States, he oversaw investigations into many unions and alleged union violence. Though detailed in recounting the investigations and trials in which McParland was involved, there is little new information here, and the court cases, repetitive in nature, slow the narrative considerably. In the end, Riffenburgh admits that there really is no private persona to consult and that the "divergent" nature he previously acknowledged in McParland's public persona leaves the mystery of who he actually was just as shrouded as in the beginning of the work. While no doubt true, it's a disappointing conclusion for those hoping for fresh insights. Not quite a reassessment but a thorough consideration of two of McParland's major court cases and the investigations that preceded them.

By the time he died in 1919, James McParland was both hailed as a fearless foe of violence and detested as a traitor to the working class who would stop at nothing to secure convictions for mining bosses. Reading this well-written, meticulously researched book about the Pinkerton Agency's most famous operative enabled me to watch him navigate through a time when moral rectitude was often a cover for getting along in a fierce, polarized world. In ways, McParland was a marvel: His protracted infiltration of the Molly Maguires ranks with the most exciting real-life spy stories I have ever read and courtroom battles with Clarence Darrow bear rereading. It doesn't surprise me that this book has provoked critical reviews on both sides of the ideological aisle; for my part, I only have praise for the thoroughness of UK author Beau Riffenburgh. —R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670025466
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/14/2013
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
6.58(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.32(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Locating the real James McParland amid the invective, acclaim and invention (including his own) is no easy task, and Beau Riffenburgh, author of '’Shackleton's Forgotten Expedition,’ has made good use of the recently released Pinkerton archives.... McParland was the prototype of a character that has become an adored part of America’s cultural landscape, the hard-boiled gumshoe, the lone sleuth in search of justice.”
—Ben McIntyre, The New York Times

“Revisiting archives and reintroducing historical context, Riffenburgh unfolds a measured, thought-provoking tale of mine-centered mayhem.”
American History 

“Thanks to Riffenburgh, it is not hard to divine the truth. McParland was neither a demon nor a saint. This is no copout. The man belonged to an age ravaged by violence and conflict, and his job as he understood it was to capture the guilty.... He was not always in the right, but he broke with the right less often and less deliberately than the criminals he hunted. That is as much heroism as Riffenburgh, a great detective in his own right, has managed to find in this alien, tumultuous time.”
The Christina Science Monitor

“Riffenburgh navigates… [a] moral quagmire deftly, contextualizing McParland and his far more violent time, while simultaneously deconstructing the image of the ‘Great Detective.’”
—The Daily Beast
 

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Meet the Author

Beau Riffenburgh has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of the academic staff. He has written numerous books on exploration, including Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition. He lives in Llanarthne, Wales, UK.

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