I’m writing a mystery set in the early 1940’s in Manhattan. It’s the first of what I hope will become a series. My protagonist is a private detective. He drinks too much and is starting to show signs of paranoia. He doesn’t eat right, wears a chip on his shoulder, and carries too much emotional baggage. It’s a wonder he can get through the day. But he’s a crackerjack detective; intuitive and fearless in a what-have-I got-to-lose sort of way. In other words he’s your typical hardboiled, wisecracking detective.
I read a lot of the classic hardboiled mysteries, especially the ones written during the early half of the twentieth century by the great writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, and James M. Cain. With these icons as my mentors, I’ve learned to weave a pretty good plot and develop appealing characters. For the story I’m working on, my research is focused on setting. I want to make sure I capture the essence of the decade, so I’m not just rereading many of these detective novels, but reading about the guys who wrote them and the happenings during that time.
Nowadays no longer do women dress in pearls, heels, and stockings just to go to the grocery store, or to take the kids to school. Men, no matter what their social status, no longer dressed in suits, ties, and fedoras. Even the foremost reasons for someone to hire a detective have changed. Sure, cheating spouses are still out there and murders continue. But today’s gumshoe is more likely to spend his/her time investigating corporate security leaks and computer hacking. Those changes are most evident in a company that’s been around for almost 166 years.
Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency started up in Chicago in 1850. Dashiell Hammett worked for them for seven years before he began writing mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters from his Sherlock Holmes’s stories, Birdy Edwards in The Valley of Fear, and Leverton in “The Red Circle,” worked for them. Since then, the company has grown into a global security agency. It is now housed in New York City and still offers gumshoe-type services, but its website describes the business as “the industry’s leading provider of risk management services and solutions for organizations.”
The most legendary Pinkerton cases from the 19th century are:
· In 1861, Pinkerton discovered an assassination plot on President Lincoln and thwarted it.
· In 1866, they tracked down notorious train robber Oliver Curtis Perry.
· In the 1870s, Pinkerton agents were busy pursuing Jesse James, the Dalton Brothers, and Butch Cassidy and his gang.
· On the Mona Lisa’s voyage across the Atlantic in 1968, Pinkerton was hired as an escort.
And here are some more notable facts:
· Kate Warne was hired in 1856 as their first female detective. She later was put in charge of the female division.
· John Scobell, hired during the Civil War, was Pinkerton’s first African-American intelligence agent.
· Pinkerton developed the first criminal database by collecting newspaper clippings and mug shots.
· By the turn of the twentieth century, they had more than 2,000 agents.
Finally, here is the original Pinkerton code:
· Accept no bribes.
· Never compromise with criminals.
· Partner with local law enforcement agencies.
· Refuse divorce cases or cases that initiate scandals.
· Turn down reward money.
· Never raise fees without the client’s pre-knowledge.
· Keep clients apprised on an on-going basis.
Now the code is simplified to three words: “We never sleep.” The company’s key values are integrity, vigilance, and excellence.
Chances are you will never need the services of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, but you can “friend” them on Facebook, “follow” them on Twitter, and “link” to them on LinkedIn. Its blog offers a wealth of information for mysteries.