Monday, March 03, 2008

Guest blogger: Eric Lerner, author of Pinkerton's Secret

Today Eric Lerner is visiting Reading the Past to talk about his debut historical novel, Pinkerton's Secret (Henry Holt, $25.00, 317pp) , which will officially be released tomorrow. In it, he gives voice to Allan Pinkerton, a Scots-born detective and spy who relocates to downtown Chicago in the pre-Civil War years and opens America's first private detective agency. No doubt you've heard of it, and him. Pinkerton's good at what he does, and knows it - he'll tell you himself - but nothing prepares him for what happens after Mrs. Kate Warne stops by his agency in response to a help-wanted ad...

The topic of Eric's post - how he created a story out of historical facts, and how he developed his protagonist's narrative voice - is something of potential interest to both historical novelists and readers. We've also got another contest and giveaway opportunity; see the very end of this post for directions on how to enter.

Ten years ago, while browsing the new arrivals shelf at my public library, I spotted a biography of Allan Pinkerton. The name conjured up images of wraiths in long black coats hunting down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and crushing striking steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. What I discovered instead was a man who contradicted the myths, but whose life created one of those tantalizing historical mysteries that can only be unraveled in the imaginative realm of fiction.

Pinkerton, I learned, was not just America’s original Private Eye, nabbing forgers, railroad thieves, and confidence men, he was a political radical who had fought for the rights of working men and women in his native Scotland, and then became passionately involved in Abolitionism when he arrived in America. In the 1850s his home in Chicago was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he counted John Brown and Frederick Douglass among his close friends. On Abraham Lincoln’s railway journey to his inauguration in 1861, Pinkerton saved the president-elect from an assassination plot in Baltimore. During the Civil War, he established the first Secret Service, hunting down rebel spies in Washington and sending his agents behind Confederate lines.

In all of these adventures, the biographer informed me, Allan Pinkerton was ably assisted by Mrs. Kate Warne, the first female detective, whom he’d hired when he first started his detective agency in 1856. The biographer assured me that despite the rumors at the time, Pinkerton’s relationship to the “attractive widow” was strictly professional.

Strictly professional? When I stopped laughing, I realized I might have a great story.

I read all the other biographies of Pinkerton, as well as Allan’s own autobiographical account of his exploits in the Civil War, “The Spy of the Rebellion.” I obtained a rare copy of Kate Warne’s actual logbooks, recounting how she accompanied Lincoln on the secret train from Philadelphia to thwart the Baltimore assassins. But I couldn’t find any clue to an involvement between Pinkerton and the female detective that wasn’t strictly professional...

Then I came upon a photo of Pinkerton’s grave. Buried on one side is his wife, and on the other, just over his shoulder, Kate Warne rests for all eternity. None of his biographers had mentioned that fact.

I began to wonder if the novelist does not have a better opportunity than the historian does to uncover certain truths that are buried in the available documents known as the historical record. As a writer of fiction I could easily imagine that Allan Pinkerton, a detective by profession who literally invented the modus operandi of investigative disguises, would go to great lengths to disguise himself in order to protect his professional reputation while he was alive as well as for posterity.

As I reread over and over Pinkerton’s accounts of his own exploits, and the biographies that drew strongly on his accounts, I put together a chronology of Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne’s whereabouts during the period of two years when Pinkerton’s exploits became the stuff of legend. They were side by side for the whole time. Moreover, it was clear to me that Pinkerton faced enormous opposition from clients, many of his male employees, and members of his own family for employing Kate Warne as well as an entire bureau of female detectives under her direction.

The story that emerged in my mind was not just about the nature of the real relationship between Allan and Kate, but the nature of their deception. This was a story that could only be constructed in fiction, because the real life protagonists had constructed a fiction of their own to hide their actions from the world.

Once I had constructed the plot of this story, I was faced with the challenge of how to tell it. For me, every novel is a unique universe whose internal rules don’t have to conform to any other universe, but have to be entirely consistent within itself. For reasons I can’t quite explain, even though the events in Pinkerton’s life are not well known, I found myself bound to the real historical occurrences. If Pinkerton actually got on a train from Baltimore to New York City in February of 1861, accompanied by Kate Warne, to warn Lincoln of the impending attack on his life, then Allan and Kate had to take that train in my novel.

But what occurred between them on that train?

There is no historical account left by either one of them. It is a blank space. The blank spaces I identified were the places where I could construct my characters, where the words, thoughts and motivations of Pinkerton and Kate Warne could take shape.

But there are other characters in this story, and some of them are well known historical personages. The novel wouldn’t be complete in my mind without Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincoln is such an American icon that the task of re-creating him in fiction was daunting at first.

Before I could deal with Abraham Lincoln, however, I had a bigger problem to solve. While I could see the story, I couldn’t hear it, and every attempt I made to tell it sounded false to me. Then one night I was awakened at three a.m. by the voice of Allan Pinkerton. Late in his life he had suffered a devastating stroke, and here is how he described it to me:
Most people don’t think being paralyzed hurts, because they can stick people pins in you and you don’t feel anything. But as I’ve made abundantly clear, most people are utter morons.
It was the voice I had encountered in his letters and the directives that poured out of the office of The General Superintendent of The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a voice that brooked no opposition or tolerance for anyone who did not understand, as he did, the difference between right and wrong, and was willing to fight for it.

It was the only voice that could narrate his own story, defend the choices he had made in his battles and his love affair. He would defend his actions to himself as much as to his readers, and to others whose identities would become known only at the end of his story.

Pinkerton the narrator also gave me a free hand to characterize Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Rose Greenhow—The Wild Rose of the Confederacy, and Frederick Douglass, among others. Allan Pinkerton knew these men women and if he wants to tell the world that Abraham Lincoln was a ninny, he was free to say so, and elaborate. After all, it is his memoir.

It took me a full decade to work through the several versions and many drafts of the novel until I completed the final one with a great editor, Jack Macrae at Henry Holt & Co. If you want to check out an intriguing representation of the novel in words and images, go to the website:


After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy, Eric Lerner spent several years traveling and living in Buddhist monasteries and communities in Asia and America. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, Journey of Insight Meditation. For several years he edited Zero, a journal that presented Buddhist thinkers alongside original work by Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and the Pulitzer Prize winning poet John Ashbery, among others. This arcane background served him well during his subsequent twenty year career as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. His films include Bird on a Wire, starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn; Kiss The Sky, starring William Petersen and Terrence Stamp; and Augustus, starring Peter O’Toole and Charlotte Rampling. Pinkerton’s Secret is his first novel.

And from Sarah, again: Thanks, Eric, for stopping by!

Eric will be providing an autographed copy of Pinkerton's Secret to a randomly selected reader of the blog. (The drawing's limited to American readers this time.) To enter, either leave a comment on this post, or drop me an email at with "Pinkerton's Secret" as the subject. Deadline is the end of the day this Thursday, March 6th; I'll notify the winner later that evening. Good luck!


  1. Incredible website. One of the best I've encountered. Joseph Finder has a video "trailer" for his latest novel on his site, but it's kind of cheesy. Eric's site is very tasteful and evocative.

  2. Yet another wonderful book that I'm going to have to put on my list Sarah. I've always been fascinated by Allen Pinkerton, especially after I read Napoleon of Crime about Adam Worth. And I was intrigued to find out Kate Warne!

  3. I also had my interest in the Pinkertons piqued by reading The Napoloen of Crime recently, and by the appearance in the HBO show Deadwood of a female Pinkerton.

    This is going on my must-read list, and I highly recommend The Napoleon of Crime to any one who is a fan of true crime, popular history, or Sherlock Holmes (Adam Worth, the thief whose biography this is, is said to have been Conan Doyle's inspiration for Professor Moriarty).

  4. Thanks for the recommendations - I've never come across The Napoleon of Crime before. Sounds fascinating.

  5. Fascinating detective work on Eric's part no doubt Pinkerton would have been surprised. Imagine his distress as a crime solver, finding out his own tracks would be unearthed after his death. What irony! The book sounds like a gripping tale. The website is terrific! I loved the hauntingly hypnotic hymn with the altered key as background as you visualize the ghosts from Pinkerton's past.

  6. I just put this novel on my wish list at Paperback Swap. It sounds like a great read. I've always been fascinated by detective stories, especially when lady detectives are involved!

  7. Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the interview!

  8. Great interview. It's fun to see where detective work began and what a huge role it played in history. I didn't know there was an assassination plot against Lincoln in the beginning of his presidency.