The Pinkerton Agency has a grey and blurry past in the making of modern America.  On the one hand they helped bring law, order and answers to a wild and unruly population that was ever-expanding.  On the other, they were known to employ extreme tactics when accomplishing their mission.  James McParland (sometimes McParlan) was no exception, though he was exceptional.

His most recognized achievement was the strikebreaking of the Molly Maguires centered around the mines of  Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  By the time it was over, ten men when to the gallows based on McParland’s testimony.  McParland was also instrumental in catching The Wild Bunch, the robbers immortalized in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  McParland’s adventures even inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear.

The book is obsessively researched, much of it from the newly released Pinkerton records.  Riffeburgh draws from files, reports and telegrams written by the actual agents and detectives.  He was by all accounts a formidable opponent, and boss.

The writer Dashiell Hammett, who worked as a Pinkerton said of his reputation:

The Old Man … was also known as Pontius Pilate, because he smiled pleasantly when he sent us out to be crucified on suicidal jobs. … The Agency wits said he could spit icicles in July.  ~Loc. 4310 of 6541

But it seems his hard edge lent to his success:

Through his early years as a superintendent, McParland showed that he could obtain results, crack difficult cases, and put away criminals (one way or another), whether as a primary investigator, as a member of a team effort, or by enabling the efforts of others.  He demonstrated that she could keep a handle on the vast area of the United States that fell under his purview, including acting as the key planner behind western operations, serving as a salesman by seeking out new customers, and showing diplomatic skills by elegantly easing any concerns or doubts that existing clients might have about ongoing investigations.  These abilities, combined with his formidable reputation with the press, public, and other law-enforcement agencies — based primarily on his Molly Maguire successes — would be of great significance in future years when he was considered for further promotion.   ~ Loc. 3583 of 6541

Though the book is well-cited and it explores multiple angles of events and cases, I find it can be hard to see through the details to the heart of the story.  at times, the adventure is diluted by the fastidious footnotes.  I found myself wishing that the author would let fly and show us the action first, then go back and analyze.

This is an incredible reference work, especially regarding the work of the Agency in the expansion west.

Read via NetGalley, with thanks to Laura at Viking/Penguin.

Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (November 14, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0670025461
ISBN-13: 978-0670025466
Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.6 inches

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