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REVIEW: Pinkerton’s Secret by Eric Lerner

Dear Mr. Lerner,

Pinkerton's SecretOf course I’d heard of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And I’d even read romance books that featured Pinkerton detective heroes and heroines before. But I didn’t know much about the real man behind the formation of one of the most famous American law enforcement businesses or of the cases he and his agents worked on.

First of all, since this is not a romance, though there is a bittersweet ‘might have been,’ I won’t review it as one. It’s a first person POV of the life of a fascinating man. This is the beginning of the age of titans in America – men who knew what they wanted and who had the guts, brains, ruthlessness and foresight to go out and get it. What Pinkerton did was create the first modern detective agency and in so doing he set the standard for how it still is today. I didn’t realize just how many innovations he pioneered nor precedents he set. Even the term “private eye” is thought to be derived from the symbol he devised for the agency. “Pinkerton’s Secret” has an ‘in your face’ style – very intense and abrupt. Is this mimicking Pinkerton’s personality? From what I’ve read about him, I would think so.

He seems the kind of man one can admire for what he accomplished though it would have been hell to work with him or, even worse, live with him. He suffered fools not at all, was outspoken, opinionated, crass, demanding of others but more so of himself. He was a man of his times – ie visiting whores and not worrying about what his wife thinks – and yet ahead of his times in regard to employment of minorities including women (though starting them at half pay) and African Americans. He had a relentless drive to accomplish his goals and never let up on himself to achieve them. You don’t depict him as a kind man but he acts as I would expect a 19th man to act. But the way you wrote the story, he seems to be almost trying to persuade himself – as well as his son Willie for whom you have him say he wrote the biography — that what he did was right. You certainly have him use a lot of !!! And he has that masculine ability to convince himself that what he wants to do is the right thing for everyone.

eye2.jpgYou seem to have taken the available historical information about him and used it well. The exploits of the agents and the agency are fascinating. Several of the incidents and subplots you include in the book made for interesting and entertaining reading. But how much of what you add to the behind the scenes urgency of the agents’ personal interactions is true? It’s probable that we’ll never know for sure exactly what was going on between Pinkerton and his first female detective Kate Warne. Pinkerton might also have had problems with his two sons and their actions as detectives and members of the agency. The tale you tell could very well be the hidden story of Pinkerton’s life though it contradicts some of the facts in a few of the online sources I checked.

Unlike Pinkerton, I’m not one who believes that the ends always justify the means and I wonder how he would operate under or what he would think of the Miranda Warning and other fourth amendment protections now in place. The cover letter sent with the arc of the book states “The unbelievable facts of Pinkerton’s exciting life are brought together in this romantic adventure that will leave astonished readers thinking: “Can this really be true? Did this really happen?” Well, I’m not sure I believed everything but it was a fun read. B


Available in hardcover

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. azteclady
    Mar 12, 2008 @ 16:57:09

    Oh I’ve been curious about this one! Thank you for the review, Jayne *adding to humongous wish list*

  2. Belinda
    Mar 13, 2008 @ 09:35:47

    Thanks for this review, Jayne. I finished this two nights ago and loved it. I pretty much agree with your review – particularly the third paragraph. It’s a fun character study, isn’t it? I did some googling too and only came up with one major event in the story where the facts had been tweaked to fit the narrative a bit better. Most other broad details seemed to follow the actual history. I do wish Lerner had included some sort of bibliography – his web site is very well done but doesn’t offer any background substance. In an interview I read he says he researched for 10 years, seems like he’d want to share at least a bit. I now have three other books on the Pinkertons on hold at the library.

  3. Jayne
    Mar 13, 2008 @ 12:58:03

    Here’s a link to a site that also bemoans the lack of bibliography. And one to a fairly long biography. I agree with you re: the broad details are the same but it seems that the man and his life are so amazing, why fudge anything?

  4. Belinda
    Mar 14, 2008 @ 05:35:08

    Thanks! (I love the crime library, is that a vice?) If we’re talking about the same fudging, it did give Pinkerton more direct personal responsibility for the way things played out in the novel than the way it actually happened. I do think Lerner could have used the same angle with the real sequence of events, but his Pinkerton pretty much had to be hit over the head with things – personal things, anyway, so I see the logic for the choice. I loved the portrayal of Pinkerton (in a glad-I’m-not-related-to-him kinda way), but did you read the NYT review? Chelsea Cain HATED him. If I were Lerner, I’d consider that a compliment. You want your characters to be that real to people. Of course, it is the NYT, and given the protagonists of Cain’s book, getting her to dislike your narrator is no small feat, so maybe not.

  5. Jayne
    Mar 14, 2008 @ 06:00:29

    Fudging-his brother wasn’t in the book, his sons are portrayed as weaklings and/or snot-nosed brats, did he have an affair with Kate Warne and was the manner of her death accurately portrayed?

    Cain was more blunt about her feelings for the way Pinkerton was portrayed but I did touch on some of that in the infamous ‘paragraph three.’ I’d hate to have this man for a boss. This is the first time I’ve probed around the Crime Library but I love Court TV’s site.

  6. Belinda
    Mar 14, 2008 @ 16:50:02

    There’s an interview with Lerner at Mostly Fiction where he talks about writing the book. He makes a big deal out of Kate’s grave being next to Pinkerton’s – but Webster’s is next to hers, so what does that say? (That may be where Lerner got the idea to have them engaged, but Webster had a wife and 4 kids, so there’s another fudge.)

    The Spy and Private Eye Museum page on Kate does say she was certainly Pinkerton’s mistress, but the evidence seems to be that “everybody knew.” (Do you think that’s her in the picture?)

    Getting rid of Robert is a pretty big fudge, but it’s not really like the book needed more conflict. I’ve read several places that Pinkerton did oppose his sons using the agency for strikebreaking so I don’t know if I’d fault Lerner’s characterization there. According to Wiki, Kate died Jan. 28 1868 of pneumonia, with Pinkerton at her bedside.

    I was talking more about the sequence of events surrounding the southern spies, which I can’t detail for spoilers. I read an account that said Rose Greenhow (whose papers you can browse here) was released early and set that in motion, but there are other accounts that track more with Lerner’s, so my initial impression could be off.

  7. Jayne
    Mar 15, 2008 @ 06:39:09

    I don’t think he changed major events in Pinkerton’s life or messed around with the facts or conjectured in ways that couldn’t be supported by the what we do know about him. Whether it’s true or not…? I skimmed a book written by Rose Greenhow that detailed her arrest and there was no mention of any women agents being present. I just get twitchy when ‘biographies’ have so many facts changed.

  8. Jayne
    Mar 15, 2008 @ 06:50:08

    I’m not sure if that is Kate in the picture or not. The person is either a feminine looking man or a masculine looking woman.

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