Between 1865 and 1937, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was at the center of countless conflicts between capital and labor, bandits and railroads, and strikers and state power. Some believed that the detectives were protecting society from dangerous criminal conspiracies; others thought that armed Pinkertons were capital’s tool to crush worker dissent. Yet the image of the Pinkerton detective also inspired romantic and sensationalist novels, reflected shifting ideals of Victorian manhood, and embodied a particular kind of rough frontier justice.
The dime-novels of the Wild West would constantly use The Pinkerton Detective Agency not only as good guys, but more often than not, as the villain. These stories were full of adventure and daring-dos. Inventing The Pinkertons or Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs manages to avoid most of that. This book is definitely well researched and written with a specific audience in mind. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the right audience. I love the excitement and the adventure that lies within history and I wasn’t able to dive into this book.
I believe my biggest issue that I had to work around was that unlike the FBI or any other service that has been written about, there is usually some figurehead that a story can be formed around. The creation of the agency and the history of Allan Pinkerton drives the first chapter and draws you into this man’s life and the myth that he wove around himself. All too quickly though it spins out to encompass the entire agency and it becomes a faceless mass with only a few characters to pin the motives of an entire force to. There were so many Pinkerton agents that the story could have followed, and I will certainly seek them out in the future for my own personal benefit, yet the book chooses to focus on the image of the Pinkertons.
The Pinkertons have always had a branding issue, to labor workers they are strikebreakers, and to desperadoes they can be just as bad as bounty hunters. They are heroes and villains all at the same time. It must be difficult to decide where they sit on the fence of justice or villainy, and I believe that S. Paul O’Hara does a valiant job trying to help his audience do so. Not being the right audience for this I instead finished the book and went and watched The Pinkertons on Netflix. I found O’Hara’s book too dry for my liking and without a clear bias in either direction (good vs bad.) Very well written and historically accurate I would recommend this to someone who is interested in that time frame and also the grey side of image and branding in the past.