Pinkerton's Secret

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This romantic adventure conjures up the passionate life story of the Civil War era's legendary private eye, recounting dramatic exploits and his clandestine love affair with his partner Allan Pinkerton's story opens in Chicago on the eve of the American Civil War. After battling con men, train robbers, and vicious gunmen, Pinkerton senses that change is in the air. Already committed to the abolitionist cause and the Underground Railroad, he allies himself with John Brown's radical antislavery crusade. Upholding ...

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New York, NY 2008 Hard cover Updated ed. New in new dust jacket. Book and dust jacket in excellent new unread condition Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. With dust jacket. 317 p. ... John MacRae Books. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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This romantic adventure conjures up the passionate life story of the Civil War era's legendary private eye, recounting dramatic exploits and his clandestine love affair with his partner Allan Pinkerton's story opens in Chicago on the eve of the American Civil War. After battling con men, train robbers, and vicious gunmen, Pinkerton senses that change is in the air. Already committed to the abolitionist cause and the Underground Railroad, he allies himself with John Brown's radical antislavery crusade. Upholding the law with one hand, he unapologetically breaks it with the other.

Kate Warne joins the Pinkerton Agency—its first female detective— and quickly takes her place as Allan's closest confidante. He asks Kate to join him, and she embraces his cause in all its contradictions and extremes. Comrades-in-arms, their romantic passion becomes the most combustible and irresistible kind, the mutual affirmation of a world of two. Together they save the life of Abraham Lincoln on his inaugural journey to Washington, root out Confederate spies within the Union government, and establish the nation's first Secret Service, sending their agents deep behind enemy lines. Blind to all consequences, the secret lovers learn too late that some battles, no matter how right the cause, cannot be won.

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Editorial Reviews

Daniel Stashower
Eric Lerner, a successful screenwriter, has fleshed out the bones of this story into a gripping historical novel. He brings a cloak-and-dagger sensibility to episodes such as the "Baltimore Plot" to assassinate President-elect Lincoln as he traveled to Washington for his inauguration, and the smashing of the Confederate spy ring headed by Rose Greenhow, the notorious "Wild Rose of the Confederacy." In Lerner's hands, even the cotton futures market becomes the stuff of drama. At the same time, the author cannily exploits the gaps in the Pinkerton legend where imagination can be given free rein, creating a tense and complicated relationship between Pinkerton and the steely Warne.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Former screenwriter Lerner's debut creatively reanimates Allan Pinkerton, founder of the country's first detective agency. Pinkerton narrates his adventuresome life and times, beginning in 1856 Chicago, as his Pinkerton National Detective Agency recruits a few good (male) operatives. When attractive, young Kate Warne applies for the job, she unknowingly puts female detectives into the history books. Tentatively at first (due to her "femaleness"), Pinkerton slowly warms to Kate and her sleuthing acumen, particularly after she helps crack a major case and goes on to assist in thwarting a Maryland secessionist plot. As the pair's success grows, so does a romance, which gets messy since Pinkerton is already married. Meanwhile, Pinkerton's agency foils an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, and Pinkerton establishes the nation's first secret service unit (in service to the Union Army), which takes on increasingly dangerous exploits. Lerner highlights Pinkerton's progressive politics and distinctive personal history with uncanny accuracy throughout this sharp-witted, romantic channeling of America's prototype investigative innovator. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The renowned private eye reviews his life and loves. The title is slightly misleading: Allan Pinkerton has more than one secret. He sympathizes with abolitionist John Brown, provides a station on the underground railway, thwarts a plot against the life of Abraham Lincoln, cunningly exposes Confederate spies in Washington, D.C., and-most prominently in this first novel by screenwriter Lerner-carries on a clandestine love affair with Kate Warne, an operative in his soon-to-be-famous agency. Pinkerton absconded from Scotland in 1843 with a 15-year-old bride, then settled in rural Illinois. He took up sleuthing in his spare time, so successfully that he was recruited as deputy sheriff in Chicago, where he became known for undermining the tactics of the local police by ferreting out information using a variety of disguises. As the story begins in 1856, his fledgling detective firm consists of five people, and his life is about to change radically with the arrival of Warne, an attractive young widow who persuades him to hire her as the agency's first female operative. Eventually their professional relationship heats up, and they become lovers. Yet they never drop their metaphorical disguises; the two sleuths expose others' secret selves but not their own. Pinkerton has a hand in various political activities both before and during the Civil War. His greatest failure comes when his best operative, Timothy Webster, is executed as a spy in Richmond. Pinkerton feels terrible guilt: Timothy was engaged to Kate, and her lover thinks he could have tried harder to save her fiance. Throughout the novel, Pinkerton, an avowed atheist, is openly contemptuous of his wife's pious belief that "God runs anorderly universe." He senses chaos both in his personal life and in the world at large. Despite some grating linguistic anachronisms ("gobbledygook," "I'll have his ass in a sling"), a novel of wonderful historical plausibilities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805082784
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/4/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Lerner has written a memoir, Journey of Insight Meditation (Schocken, 1976), about his experiences traveling and living in Buddhist monasteries and communities in Asia and America. This background in the arcane led to his subsequent twenty-year career as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. Films with his name on them include Bird on a Wire and Augustus, starring Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling. Lerner currently lives in Boston.

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Read an Excerpt

There was no explanation of who she was or the nature of her business with my Agency beyond her name, Mrs. Kate Warne, written in my appointment book for ten o’clock on the morning of August 22, 1856.

At that time the Pinkerton National Detective Agency consisted only of myself, my General Superintendent George Bangs, and three recently hired operatives.

Even though George Bangs has managed to infuriate and exasperate me for thirty years and has never been much of a detective, he has been as loyal and trustworthy a friend as any man could ever hope to have. I gave him his title in recognition of the fact that he saved me from insolvency. I have no idea what possessed him even to apply for a position when I had yet to hire a single suitable employee. He was a banker, one of a whole class of disreputable sons of eastern families of distinction you found here in Chicago back in those days, mostly in the branch offices of commercial enterprises, sent by their fathers to the frontier to spare the family further embarrassment.

That didn’t matter to me. He could keep a set of books, which I could not, and get the rent paid, which was crucial at the outset. Over time he helped me build my empire. In return I have always done my best to include him in the activities of criminal investigation, satisfying his appetite for adventure while making sure he never got himself killed.

On the morning of Mrs. Warne’s appearance, I had not left the office the previous night. This had become my habit, sleeping only a couple of hours in my chair as I worked to formulate a strategy to crack a difficult case. Lost in thought, I was startled by the brief knock at my door that preceded George’s sudden entrance. He ushered her in with a big smile on his face. George has always fancied himself a bit of a ladies’ man. Certain women find him attractive. All right, most women do. The man is undeniably handsome. So what? He had nothing to do with it.

These old-family Americans may have been the dregs of England when they first landed, but as is apparent with dogs and cattle there is something to be said for selective breeding. The first men off the Mayflower got their pick of the females from each boat that followed. Consequently George is a tall fellow, broad across the chest, his face distinguished by nearly perfect unmarked skin and a square jaw whose bones rise like Greek columns to support his smooth brow. His hair is thick chestnut, like a racehorse, and he carries himself with effortless grace.

George had made this appointment, and in my mood that morning I had little patience for his obvious blunder. As my General Principles clearly state:

The Agency will never investigate the morals of a woman unless in connection with another crime, nor will it handle cases of divorce or of a scandalous nature.

hat else could this Mrs. Warne be here for?

What confirmed my assumption of her situation was an ineffable sadness welling behind her dark brown eyes, the sadness of a woman who has lost a man. What she had lost, however, I was not in the business of trying to regain.

George caught the stern look of disapproval on my face and made some inane comment to cover his retreat, leaving me to deal with the unpleasant task of turning her away.

“Mrs. Warne,” I said, rising to my feet, “I apologize for whoever accepted this appointment, but it is my strict policy not to accept cases of a domestic nature.”

“A domestic nature?”

I detected an unmistakable tone of irony. I hate irony. I am not very good at it, and when others direct it at me I take offense. I stared at her balefully. Mrs. Warne, however, did not flinch from my gaze. The sadness had disappeared from her eyes. She was amused.

“Is that what you have so quickly deduced to be the purpose of my interview with you, Mr. Pinkerton?” As if to emphasize just how mistaken I was, she seated herself without my offer in one of the two chairs across from my desk. “It is understandable that you might arrive at that erroneous conclusion.” Her tone was infuriatingly indulgent.

“Then would you be so kind as to inform me precisely what services you wish to employ from my Detective Agency?”

“None, Mr. Pinkerton. I wish to be employed by your Agency. I am here in response to your advertisement.”

She opened her purse and removed a neatly cut page from the Chicago Tribune featuring the cunning logo of my own design, a heavy-lidded, half-closed eye of vaguely mysterious Hindoo origin, which perfectly illustrated the sobriquet that had quickly attached itself to my person: The Eye That Never Sleeps. The advertisement contained the terse announcement, now accepting applications for positions of employment in the field of criminal detection.

I had shown little enthusiasm for advertising for prospective operatives, but George insisted we could not survive with our current meager numbers, no matter how many twenty-hour days I worked. He told me that by placing a notice in a respectable newspaper, next to solicitations for bank managers and industrial supervisors, we would attract a better class of job seeker than those who had appeared at our door to date.

So much for his asinine idea.

“Mrs. Warne, what possible use could a woman be as a detective?”

She smiled, and I realized she had gotten me to pose the very question to which she had already composed her answer. “Isn’t it obvious, Mr. Pinkerton, that a woman can worm out secrets in many places to which it is impossible for a male detective to gain access?”

The minute she spoke, I knew it was a damn good idea. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? This country has become intolerably prudish since then in its notions of what is decent behavior for a respectable woman. And I am not just a cranky old man glorifying his younger days! There are better times and worse times, and these are terrible times, despite my sons’ smug embrace of the era’s fashionable hypocrisy, especially in regard to women.

Back in the fifties, however, “widow farmers” were a common sight on Michigan Avenue, rolling into town behind mule-drawn wagons, wearing men’s overalls and managing on their own when their men succumbed to fevers and fights or got their brains kicked out by their own horses while defenselessly drunk.

You couldn’t spit without hitting a sign advertising the services of mediums, spiritualists, or faith healers, women who were welcome at the finest dinner tables in Chicago. The Women’s Suffrage movement was more powerful than the Abolitionist cause. Even more pertinent to Mrs. Warne’s argument was the fact that in those days women ran the world’s oldest profession, as well as numerous saloons and traveling theatrical troupes, with little of the opprobrium that is now attached to their participation in these enterprises.

When I started the Pinkerton National Detective Agency some thirty years ago, this demimonde was a veritable gold mine of information for my trade. I had from time to time gained nuggets from that mine, but Mrs. Warne was correct in pointing out that a woman could dig even deeper into its hidden veins of precious ore. But was Mrs. Kate Warne the right one for the job?

These are my precise first impressions of her. She was twenty-five. I am never wrong when it comes to assessing men’s and women’s ages. She was a handsome woman, of slender figure, but not the type who wishes to draw attention to her physical attributes. This was apparent in the plain cut of her dress, which did not blossom in the rear in a full bustle, in the way her hair was gathered in a tight bun behind her head, and in the hat she wore, which was a respectable but by no means eye-catching creation by a decent milliner. A simple brooch was pinned on her right breast. She wore no necklace or other jewelry, except a plain gold wedding band that was revealed when she removed her gloves. The gloves were her only touch of extravagance. They were distinctive, soft kid leather in a fine shade of gray. As she took them off, I noted long supple fingers that hinted at an almost masculine strength.

I had remained standing ever since she entered my office. I am not a tall man, but my build, which some characterize as that of a brick, can be intimidating. When I face an adversary I stand erect, head tilted at an angle. I’ve known the power of my cold gray eyes since I was a lad. Most people squirm to avoid my gaze. Mrs. Warne, however, had a disconcerting manner of moving her head as she spoke, not to avoid my eyes but to engage them more fully.

Seeking to establish my authority in this interview, I asked her to acquaint me with any details of her personal history she felt might qualify her as a female detective.

Mrs. Warne stated that she was originally from a good-sized town west of Boston, where her father was minister of the Congregational Church. She had two sisters and no brothers, and her father had lavished upon her an education unusual for a female in that society—in part, she had come to believe, out of a wish for intellectual companionship, her mother being a rather dull spirit. In reply to further inquiry regarding the specifics of her educational background, she informed me that she could read Aristotle as well as Ovid in the original and that she was also fluent in French, which, she remarked, would probably be of more use in the business of criminal detection. She also claimed broad knowledge of current views in the sciences of biology, geography, and geology, as well as proficiency in mathematics.

“Mr. Pinkerton.” She broke off her narrative to address me. “Would you mind terribly taking a seat? I don’t like talking to someone when I cannot look at them, and I am developing a crick in my neck staring up at you.”

If any man had spoken to me like that I would have told him to fuck himself. Instead, I muttered some apology and practically tripped sliding into my chair.

We continued our dialogue face-to-face, directly across my desk. Mrs. Warne told me that her father’s eye had fallen on the son of a local farmer, a boy named Alfred Warne, who seemed unusually attentive to his Sunday sermons. With the elder Warne’s permission, her father had sent Alfred to Harvard College, to prepare him as his successor as minister of the Congregational Church. To keep it in the family, Alfred would marry Kate.

“Shortly after our wedding, however, Alfred announced to my father that he had no interest whatsoever in the ministry but, instead, wished to take me to San Francisco. I was as shocked by the revelation as my father. You see, even though Alfred and I had been having quite enjoyable sex since our marriage, I hadn’t the faintest idea who this man was.”

I was familiar with the stratagem of certain females who make casual reference to the activity of sexual intercourse to knock a man’s concentration into a cocked hat. I merely nodded and asked, “And what was your reaction?”

“After giving it some consideration, I was thrilled by the prospect of our future in California. My father was furious, however, and I have not spoken to him since we boarded a train for Chicago five years ago. When we arrived, Alfred and I obtained employment, wishing to save enough to reach California with a stake to start our new life.” Mrs. Warne stopped suddenly and looked down.

I was furious with myself. How could I have missed it? Mrs. Warne! What man would ever allow his wife to apply for a position as a criminal detective?

“How did Alfred die, Mrs. Warne?” I muttered, shaking my head.


I didn’t need the details. As I have noted, violent death was a common occurrence in Chicago at that time.

I had to decide whether or not to extend the interview. I had so far discovered little about Mrs. Warne to lead me to any conclusion regarding her suitability as my first female detective. Then, as often happens when I am stymied, my mind leapt to a bold and intuitive strategy.

“Mrs. Warne, do you believe in God?”

“What possible relevance could my belief in God have to my qualifications for employment as a detective?” She looked at me sharply, and I knew that my ploy was working. In fact, I had little interest in her religious beliefs, having none myself. I was only interested in discerning the nature of her mind.

“Mrs. Warne,” I answered, in a sharp tone that might well have scared her off right then and there, “I assure you my question regarding your belief in God is pertinent, so please answer truthfully. I can easily detect a false response.”

“Really?” Her brows rose, lifting her eyelids, revealing more fully the thin crescent moons of the whites of her eyes, nearly pressed out of sight by the enormity of her luminous brown pupils. “Mr. Pinkerton,” she stated, with a touch of haughtiness, “I grew up in a minister’s home where that question was posed as frequently as how one preferred one’s eggs cooked for breakfast.”

“Your answer to the question, Mrs. Warne?”


She smiled. Grimly. Over the course of our years together, I would see many different smiles from her, but I must admit the grim one was always one of my favorites.

“I take it that you do not believe in God, Mrs. Warne?”

“I have declared nothing of the kind,” she countered, as if we were at a checkerboard and she had bounced her red disk over three of my blacks. Yet I did not mind; I recall that quite clearly. I was amused, if not charmed, even as a little shrieking squirrel in my head told me to get a grip.

“Then you do believe in God, but you guess that I do not, and you fear that the admission of your true belief would jeopardize your chance of employment.”

“Yes, Mr. Pinkerton. I do believe in God.”

“Just as I said!” I practically crowed. I am a more insufferable winner than loser.

“Sometimes.” She shrugged, seeming to lose interest in the discussion.

I was alarmed. “That is absurd!”

“No more absurd than this interview has become.” The corners of her cleanly etched lips pulled back, as if she were gearing up for combat. “I believe in God,” she pronounced, “on those occasions when such belief provides immediate fortification, like strong spirits. Otherwise, I am not concerned with life everlasting or eternal salvation, and I tend to ignore the question of His existence.”

“I see.”

“I’m not sure you do, but perhaps you would be so kind as to explain what this has to do with criminal detection?”

“Everything, Mrs. Warne.”

“Then I am all ears.” As I have noted, I find sarcasm unbearable. For some odd reason, hers was unquestionably alluring.

“A belief in a Supreme Authority carries the burden of adherence to His laws, does it not? While I struggle mightily to adhere to the laws of this nation, state, and county, any covenant with the commandments of God renders the task of criminal detection impossible.”

“Which commandment, Mr. Pinkerton, graven images? I can’t imagine that’s part of the job. Honoring one’s father and mother? Perhaps adultery?”

The woman was mocking me!

“Lie, Mrs. Warne. Lie!” I pounded the table. “Lying is the essential core of our practice. We are deceivers by trade!”

The nod of her head was like the sweep of a swan’s neck before the bird takes to the sky. She leaned forward in her chair to listen more closely. No one could listen the way Mrs. Warne could.

“Mrs. Warne, a detective not only lies, but he steals. I steal the only thing the criminal has: his pride. I create a false identity to gain his confidence, precisely the way he ensnares his victim. With great stealth I close the distance between hunter and hunted, until my prey is looking me right in the eye, believing he sees a friend. That’s a rare thing for a criminal to have, someone to whom he can reveal his art, his craft, someone he can trust.”

How many times had I tried to explain this to George and the others? They simply enjoyed our business and didn’t care about the why or how. But I did. I went on in a low, secretive tone.

“The only way to gain that trust is to so thoroughly disguise myself that I actually forget who I really am. I know no man named Pinkerton; I am Morley, the forger of bonds, or Banish, a sly clerk at the packing plant who can duplicate the keys to the payroll offices. This cannot be feigned, Mrs. Warne. You must live it—right up until the moment when you rip away the disguise and the detective reappears. Then your recent comrade in crime looks you in the eye, and it is not his outrage that moves you. It is his sadness at your betrayal.”

She pursed her lips, a ploy many women use to elicit even greater attention to their person than a man is already paying, but Mrs. Warne’s face was a study in contemplation. I was shocked by the realization that she was judging what must have sounded to her like a confession! How in the world had I entrusted myself to this total stranger? I had to get her out of my office immediately.

With great effort I maintained a matter-of-fact tone. “Mrs. Warne, I do not think that you are suited to this type of activity.”

“I beg your pardon!”

She wasn’t begging anything. She had been sitting before me in some demure disguise that she now cast aside. She rose slowly out of her chair, radiating a physicality that was palpable, her eyes shining like polished stones. Her body seemed to press outward against her dress, her female form demanding my attention. Her smile was both beguiling and commanding as she murmured, in a shimmering tone, “Mr. Pinkerton, how can you possibly conclude that I am incapable of these acts of deception?”

Before I could reply, George Bangs barged into the room. Whatever urgent matter he had to report, he seemed to forget as he stared in amazement at the startling sight of Mrs. Warne leaning across my desk, fixing me in my chair with her mesmerizing gaze. George must have thought the order of the universe had been upended, and the Earth now revolved around the Moon.

“What is it, George?” I asked, not taking my eyes off Mrs. Warne.

“Sorry, Allan, it can wait. You seem to be still . . . engaged.” He shrugged smugly. George has always tried to penetrate my mind and uncover the unsavory.

“I do apologize, Mr. Bangs.” Mrs. Warne turned away from me, breaking the trance as she resumed her prior demeanor. “I have already taken much too much of Mr. Pinkerton’s valuable time. I will be going.” She was nearly out the door before I regained my wits.

“Will you kindly wait, Mrs. Warne?” George, the jackass, was grinning. “I will be with you presently,” I told him.

He half bowed to Mrs. Warne and walked out, leaving the door open, so I had to come close to her because I did not want George to overhear what I was considering. “Mrs. Warne,” I said, as nonchalant as I could manage, “I will give honest consideration to your application and inform you of my decision within a week.”

“Thank you, Mr. Pinkerton. I could not ask for anything more.” She reached out to shake my hand. A good firm handshake.

Copyright © 2008 by Eric Lerner. All rights reserved.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    superb historical tale

    In 1856 in Chicago, Alan Pinkerton forms his Pinkerton National Detective Agency by hiring several strong seemingly trust worthy men women need not apply and he does not expect any will.--------- He is proven wrong when pretty Kate Warne applies for the position of Pinkerton Agent. Pinkerton says no, but Warne is persistent so he hires her with his plan to give her soft jobs and less pay than his male operatives. However he quickly changes his mind when she turns out to be one of top agents as he gives her increasingly more difficult cases to work. Attracted to one another, they begin an affair that turns ugly once Pinkerton¿s wife learns that Kate is under the cover not undercover. ------------ This is a fabulous biographical fiction story that provides the audience a deep look at the personal and professional lives of Alan Pinkerton and the first female agent Kate Warne. The story line is action-packed from the onset whether it is in Chicago setting up the agency, on a case in DC leading to the formation of the Secret Service, or working to uncover Confederate spies in the capital. Readers will appreciate this superb historical tale.---- Harriet Klausner

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