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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: 'Pinkerton's Great Detective'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews

Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParlandBy Beau Riffenburgh
November 2013
Viking Books
ISBN: 978-0-670-02546-6

Some of the great parts of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come when Paul Newman turns to Robert Redford and asks, "Who are those guys?"

That question eventually led Beau Riffenburgh to this biography of Pinkerton agent James McParland, who tracked the Hole in the Wall Gang and went undercover in tough mining towns across the country. A poor Irish immigrant who raised himself from nothing and lived by his wits for years, McParland drew both praise and scorn during his lifetime as an undercover agent who infiltrated the Molly Maguires in an era of deadly Pennsylvania coal mine violence before heading out west.

Riffenburgh is a conscience researcher and writer who uncovers the records of McParland's actions and writings. This is essential in a biography such as this, as one's view of the subject may well depend on one's political viewpoint. Was McParland a turncoat to his people or someone who served justice?

Well, it depends a great deal on one's point of view. Riffenburgh does a great job of placing McParland within his own times. Those were far different from today's in that criminal cases were brought by those who could afford to prosecute. But there also are parallels to today with company owners who want to pay workers the least amount possible, have them indebted to the company store and still be able to fire them at will.

For McParland to drop into such a situation, and possibly with the ultimate goal of making sure he followed the tenents of his church, Riffenburgh makes it easy to see that his subject's role was not easy. The author also uses the array of historical record available to not sway the reader, but instead to place the reader squarely within the context of what can be shown of those turbulent times.

The author also does a thorough job of describing the times in which McParland operated from more than one viewpoint. Mine owners and workers who were either indebted to the company store or faced being fired did not view the world in the same way, and Riffenburgh does well to describe both viewpoints. The even-handed approach may not change anyone's mind, but it does bring into focus what the stakes were for everyone involved, including McParland.

For anyone who wondered the same thing that Paul Newman did in that classic film, and for those wonder about those times, Pinkerton's Great Detective is an excellent way to find some answers.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

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