Eric Lerner

"Pinkerton's Secret"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAR 2, 2008)

"I steal the only thing a 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 the hunters and the 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."

Pinkerton's Secret by Eric Lerner

I don’t normally read historical fiction, but I was drawn to Eric Lerner’s novel Pinkerton’s Secret for its subject matter.Scots born Allan Pinkerton, a radical Chartist who Read our interview with Amanda Eyre Wardimmigrated to America in 1842, is a fascinating, problematic figure and an integral part of American history. Perhaps best known for establishing the first detective agency in the U.S., Pinkerton was also a Union spy during the Civil War. The agency was later connected to some rather unpleasant union-busting, and at one point, Pinkerton formed a private secret service organization. Pinkerton’s secret service--an alternate, shadowy structure worked parallel with Lincoln’s government and as such Pinkerton’s serves as a significant prototype for the private militia company, Blackwater.

In Pinkerton’s Secret author and screenwriter Eric Lerner recreates Pinkerton’s remarkable life through his intriguing relationship with Kate Warne, his first female detective. Thrilling, compelling, and highly original, this novel is cleverly written in the form of a memoir narrated by a now elderly, dying Pinkerton. The novel begins with Pinkerton’s initial meeting with Kate Warne when she applies for a position as a detective. Pinkerton, although an enlightened man for his times, is skeptical that a woman can make a good detective. Unconvinced that a woman is capable of sustained disguise and deception, he initially dismisses the possibility of employing any females. Kate Warne, however, proceeds to show Pinkerton just how complex and unfathomable she is, and from the very beginnings of their long relationship, Pinkerton, a man who prides himself on being an expert on human nature, finds himself nonplussed by Kate’s implacable manner. To Pinkerton, Kate is an enigma—attractive, intelligent, and a strategic thinker: “Mrs. Warne produced a type of enthrallment” Pinkerton is unprepared for.

Part historical adventure story and part romance, Pinkerton’s relationship with the remarkable Kate Warne is central to this rip-roaring read. The story is set against one of the most remarkable periods of American history, and with the Civil War unleashed, these are turbulent years, but Pinkerton’s memoirs reach back through time to include details of his life as a radical abolitionist and his active involvement with the Underground Railroad. In these unprecedented times, and amidst strife and boundless opportunities, Pinkerton relates his transformation from penniless, subversive Scot to eminently respectable bastion of society. While Pinkerton argues he had “no ambition for the wealth, power and peculiar social status,” he recognizes that “the greatest opportunity America offers a newcomer is the chance to discover what we are really made of.” And Pinkerton evolves as the country undergoes vast changes, eventually becoming “the inventor of the modern science of criminal detection.” At times inflexible and a firm believer in “the ends justify the means,” Pinkerton is a proactive man with firm principles who grasps the vast opportunities offered by a new life in America.

Although successful in his public life, Pinkerton has a far from satisfactory domestic life. His Scottish wife Joan is not his soul mate, and with an imperfect, compartmentalized marriage, Pinkerton throws himself into his work while privately acknowledging, “It seems to me that the longer a man and a woman cohabit under the same roof, the terser the dialogue becomes.”

Many well-known historical figures come to life within these pages. Pinkerton, no respecter of persons, is in awe of the terrifying figure of John Brown: “the most color-blind white man” he ever met and he acknowledges, “Listening to the words of John Brown was the closest I have ever come to experiencing awe.” Lincoln--obviously central to the Civil War--also appears, and he is presented here as a troubling figure--a man whose vagueness and inability to take decisive action annoys Pinkerton. In spite of his frustrations of dealing with Lincoln, Pinkerton can’t help but like him and since the novel takes the form of a memoir, we are privy to Pinkerton’s intimate thoughts: “ I always liked him. There was a lot about him I even admired. He was blind half the time, but he chose to be. He couldn’t stand the sight of certain things, so he closed his eyes. He was deaf too. He didn’t really listen to anyone, and that was his best con. It was amazing how many men swore they had Lincoln’s ear.”

While the country is ripped in two by racism, bigotry and war, Pinkerton and Kate Warne are thrown into each other’s company as they take enormous risks for the Union cause. Circumstances dictate an abandonment of societal norms, and Pinkerton and his detectives including the “reckless” Timothy Webster are forced to step outside of their lives as they spy for the North: “It was all a deception or, more precisely, a myriad of deceptions. None of us were who we pretended to be, and each of us was pretending in different ways.” Fascinated by the unfathomable Kate Warne, Pinkerton gradually, almost grudgingly, comes to admire her, and then finds that he is falling in love, with Kate--a woman who is his intellectual match.

Not overburdened with lengthy descriptions, Pinkerton’s Secret is an amazingly visual, character-driven tale that should appeal to a wide range of readers. Fast-paced, exciting and highly readable, this marvelous novel is a well-crafted tale of some remarkable times, but to me, the most fascinating aspect of the novel is Pinkerton. A vital man, vibrant and alive with boundless drive and a strange sort of ambition, America’s greatest detective ignores clues regarding his emotions. Betrayed by his own feelings, he’s ultimately humbled by the mysteries of the human heart:

“You see, I had done all that I could do, and whatever I had not accomplished, those things had simply not been possible. Even a man like me who possesses an indomitable will cannot extend his grasp beyond his reach.

I had done it all in a way I could never have imagined, but who can? Much less imagine that it can end, suddenly, with such stunning finality?”

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About the Author:

Eric Lerner graduated with a degree in Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy from Harvard College. He spent several years traveling and living in Buddhist monastaries and communities in Asia and America.

For several years he edited Zero, a journal that presented Buddhist thinkers alongside original work by Allen Ginsberg, John Cage and John Ashbery.

Subsequently, he spent the next twenty years as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. His films include Bird on a Wire, Kiss the Sky and Augustus.

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