Sunday, March 21, 2010

"The Eye That Never Sleeps": Frank Morn's History of the Pinkerton Detective Agency

"The Eye That Never Sleeps" by Frank Morn is the first history that I've read in my newfound quest to learn all there is to know about the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and I was a bit disappointed. There are so many extraordinary characters and stories associated with the Pinkertons, and Morn covers the ground, but there could have been greater pleasure in the reading if he'd brought more storytelling flair to the narrative. Particularly in the first half of the book, it sometimes felt like harder going than it ought to have been.

Also, there were gaps. Most notable for me was the absence of women. Morn notes early on that "women were an important part of the detective agency throughout the founder's life" and, later, that "female detectives assumed an important place in the Pinkerton story." Yet he accords them only eight sentences including the two I just quoted. I wanted to know more. I also would have liked a bit more detail on founder Alan Pinkerton's eldest son William. Morn includes enough about him to suggest that he may have been the most interesting member of the Pinkerton family⎯he who was known simply as "the Eye" and was apparently beloved of many underworld figures and police chiefs alike. But he doesn't get nearly as much space in the narrative as his younger brother Robert, Alan Pinkerton's more highly favoured son and heir.

I concede, however, that the above critique is an idiosyncratic one and, my personal quibbles aside, "The Eye That Never Sleeps" is an impressive and valuable work of scholarship. It's packed with interesting detail and is clearly the product of rigorous archival research. When I was moved to follow through to the footnotes, more often than not they were citations to letters and documents from the Pinkerton archives. This suggests to me that much of the information Morn has gathered in his history won't be readily accessible anywhere else. Morn also provides a lengthy bibliography which provides plenty of leads on where I might learn more about the Pinkerton-related topics that particularly intrigue me.

Finally, a great strength of the book is that Morn doesn't stop at providing a thorough and informative history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He also sets that history firmly in the context of U.S. history more broadly and, particularly, in the context of the development of both private and public policing in the U.S. and Europe. So I recommend it as an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the Pinkerton Detective Agency and also as a useful resource for those interested in the history of policing more broadly.


Peter Rozovsky said...

I assocaite Pinkerton with strikebreaking and Dashiell Hammett.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Dean said...

Hey nice review on an unusual book.