Simmons, Dan. The Fifth Heart. New York: Hatchette, 2015.

Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, World's Columbian Exposition, 1893 (

Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 (

A few years ago, looking for something at least slightly scary and non-Sherlockian to read, I picked up a paperback by today’s author, Dan Simmons.*  Drood, the back cover blurb promised, “keeps the reader perpetually off balance until the last sentence,” and Stephen King (the Stephen King) declared on the front that this was “a masterwork of narrative suspense.”** Purporting to be the story of Dickens’ last years, as told by Wilkie Collins, Drood ended up being so much more. After I got past my qualms over fictionalizing the lives of real people, I was blown away, not only by the story (which was told in the manner one might expect of a laudanum addict), but by all Simmons had to say about writing, ambition, competition, and the complexities of admiration, friendship, and need. Drood in paperback is over 900 pages long, and by the time I rushed through them, Simmons had jumped onto my list of “Writers I Will Never Be As Good As.”

So, when I learned via Facebook that Simmons had written a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, I ran to the bookstore, bought it in hardback… and then proceeded to wait for nearly six weeks to read it, because, let’s face it, my usual reading venues of violin lessons and taekwondo practice are not ideal for what I hoped would be a remarkable experience.

All Talking, All the time

All Talking, All the time

And you know? It was.

The Fifth Heart  begins in 1893, in Paris, with author Henry James (of A Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and The Bostonians fame), heading for the Pont Neuf, his sister Alice’s ashes in his pocket, prepared to jump off the bridge and end his life on the cusp of his 50th birthday.

Why? The omniscient narrator is (strangely) not sure. James has had, and will have, episodes of serious depression, but none (that we know of) that particular year. The narrator throws out some possibilities–poor sales, middle-aged angst, his sister’s death–but we are left with the distinct impression that James is set to kill himself just because it fits the narrative…an authorial decision which ties directly into the book’s underlying theme. Because, you see, The Fifth Heart is, like Drood,  both a suspense novel, and, underneath, a meditation, this time on the nature of identity–but more on that later.

Writer Henry James, c. 1893, the date of The Fifth Heart.

Writer Henry James, c. 1893

James is not alone on the Pont Neuf. There is another man there with him, hidden in the shadows, but contemplating the very same escape. Instead, Sherlock Holmes saves Henry James by yanking him away from the river’s edge; Henry James saves Sherlock Holmes by recognizing him.

All the world recognizes Sherlock Holmes, of course: his profile, deer-stalkered or not, has become  the best-known in literature since Sidney Paget began illustrating his adventures for The Strand Magazine.***  But this is 1893, and as we all know, Holmes was living incognito, running through Asia, Africa, and Europe as the famed Norwegian explorer, Sigerson. He is, therefore, shocked when James identifies him immediately, proceeds to” correct” him, then tacitly acknowledges his identity by lapsing into his normal accent (London tinged with Yorkshire) and concurring that he and James were once at the same benefit back in England–James as guest, Holmes as investigator.  Together they walk away from their planned demises and back into the life of a Parisian restaurant, where Holmes, relieved to be himself once more, begins to almost babble at  James, telling him everything, much as if he were Watson: the true story of his “death” at the Reichenbach Falls, a secret about Moriarty, more about the the King of Bohemia (who happens to show up in the restaurant as they are talking) and, in the midst of all of this, the reason why he had decided to try to end his own life..for real and for good:

“‘I discovered, Mr. James,’ he said as I leaned closer, ‘that I was not a real person. I am…how would a literary person such as yourself put it? I am, the evidence has proven to me most conclusively, a literary construct. Some inkstained scribbler’s creation. A mere fictional character.'”

At this point, James (who has had his suspicions) is certain that the man sitting across from him eating chocolate mousse is completely mad. But Holmes has some very solid evidence to back up his deduction:†

  • Watson’s changing wound: “‘….five years ago–I remember the date in 1888–Watson’s spidery shoulder wound from the jezail bullet had suddenly become a bullet wound he was complaining of, even in print, in his leg.'”
  • Watson’s many wives: “‘They simply come and go–as if they flicker in and out of existence–primarily depending upon what I take to be a fiction-author’s need to have Watson living with me…'”
  • The fact that he cannot find 221B, Baker Street, on City Surveyor maps.
  • And then there is this:

“‘But mostly…it is the cloudiness, lack of daily detail, emptiness…for me of the periods between my actual cases that most makes me doubt my existence separate from some fictional page. It’s as if I’m alive…real…only when investigating a case.'”

James makes the quite reasonable observation that this is probably due to the drugs. Holmes counters that he has exchanged his seven per-cent solution for morphine, and intends to change that out for a new, supposedly safer “heroic”  drug.  None of this, frankly, leads us to question his companion’s suggestion.

Still, what are the odds that a famous author should be saved from suicide by an equally famous detective who just happened to be in the area?

You know what he would say....

You know what he would say….

Exactly. and so it should come as no surprise to the reader when Sherlock Holmes informs Henry James that he will be accompanying “Sigerson” to America.  The detective gives his bewildered new friend a list of “reasons” why, such as “you will enjoy this!”, but the reality is that Holmes is traveling to the States for more than a supply of still-experimental heroin.

First, as he tells James, he is heading to Washington, D.C., to tackle a case he took on two years before, one which involves the death of one of James’s intimate friends, photographer Marian “Clover” Adams, wife of historian Henry Adams and one of the “Five Hearts.”


Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams (Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

The Five Hearts–John and Clara Hay, Henry and Clover Adams and Clarence King–became close friends in the winter of 1880-188, spending many evenings together immersed in conversation and conviviality. Although Henry James was not one of them, he had become very friendly with the Adamses while they were in London, and good friends with the Hays as well. Sherlock Holmes hopes, therefore, that his new friend will be able to gain him–er, Sigerson–entrance into their circle so that he can determine, once and for all, if Clover killed herself by drinking a solution of potassium cyanide–or if she was murdered.

Holmes has another mission, too, this one set by his brother, the British Government. Over the past several years, Mycroft Holmes has begun to discern the threads of a conspiracy tying together such events as Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre, a hitherto unknown assassination plot against Queen Victoria, and numerous politically motivated murders and anarchistic violence around the world.†† Now that his younger brother has quite conveniently “died,” he has plenty of time to trace these threads to their source. Between tracing malevolent assassins, solving a seven year-old murder, experiencing heroin and determining once and for all if he is real, Sherlock Holmes’s American April will prove more fateful than either he or Henry James can imagine.

Fans of historical fiction, particularly if they have an affinity for a particular era, tend to be very knowledgeable, very observant, and very…vocal when they discover an anachronism. Fans of Sherlock Holmes also tend to be just as knowledgeable and observant–and probably even more vocal when it comes to a canonical error. What readers of both persuasions need to realize at the outset is that Simmons’s historical novels are always an amalgam of truth and shameless AU (alternative universe). Although he doesn’t do it egregiously, he has no problem altering the occasional historical fact to suit his story, and you can be sure that in The Fifth Heart, some widely-accepted aspects of the Canon have received the same treatment. For some of you, this will be an automatic deal breaker, and that’s fine. For those of you who have no problem with some creative deviance, however, the question is: how believable is Simmons’ universe?

Front of the Adams Memorial, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Front of the Adams Memorial, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

First of all, let me say that, while I did fact-check some of the book’s historical aspects, I didn’t tackle every event, character, or assertion: there just wasn’t time. That being said, most of what I checked turned out to be accurate, and what did not had a valid reason for being included in the story. For example:

  • The depiction of Clarence King’s domestic situation is accurate.
  • Although Clover Adams had a friend named Rebecca Dodge, Rebecca Lorne and her son are fictional. Mrs. Adams visited Lizzie Cameron alone.
  • The monument Henry Adams had commissioned for his wife’s grave exists, but is not completely as described. Unfortunately.
  • Ned Hooper died in the manner described–but in June, 1901, rather than the spring of 1893.
  • “Paha Sapa” is a fictional character, one of Simmons’ own, who first appears in his novel, The Black Hills. I did not realize this at first. Once I did, and actually read that novel (very quickly), The Fifth Heart gained some resonance that I had missed when I did not know his significance.
  • Various racial attitudes were as depicted.
  • Sherlock Holmes did not solve a domestic problem for Clara Hay (who won my heart as a middle-aged fangirl), but one wishes he (or someone) had.
  • There was no assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in 1887; nor was there one against “Queen Elizabeth,” as Jaime Mahoney of the “Better Holmes and Gardens” blog pointed out–but that last is likely an editorial failure.

Some readers may object to the number of famous Real-Life Personages Simmons includes as characters, (and I have to admit, that is one of my pastiche pet peeves) but this time, in The Five Hearts, it only makes sense.  John Hay, for example, served as secretary to President Lincoln, ambassador to the Court of St. James, and Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt, among other offices. Henry Adams was…an Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, with all of the connections that name could possibly bestow. Henry James, likewise, had a family and career which put him in a position to meet many of the literary and artistic lights of his time.  I tend to give a little eye-roll when Oscar Wilde, say, or a young Albert Einstein appear in pastiche; in the circles Simmons describes, however, Samuel Clemens and Rudyard Kipling are neither exotic, nor artificial. He also treats these “characters” with respect, allowing them to be the complex human beings they were in life. Teddy Roosevelt is, for possibly the first time in Sherlockian pastiche, disagreeable. Samuel Clemens is by turns crude, hilarious, wise, and wistful, a human being hidden behind a consciously crafted folksy persona. James, who steadfastly refuses to be Holmes’ replacement Boswell, is drawn with affection and humor, even if his mannered novels take a few “palpable hits.”

While Simmons’ exacting research is one of The Fifth Heart’s strengths, however, it is also its greatest weakness. While in most cases, historical fact is woven fairly seamlessly into fictional narrative, Simmons occasionally indulges in “info dumps”–the characters’ walk through the Columbian Exposition being the most obvious example, and the menu for the Hays’ dinner party being another (although the fact that a fairly small dinner party called for a printed menu might give the reader an idea of the complexities of polite Washingtonian society).

That's all well and good, madam, but what does he say about me?

That’s all well and good, madam, but what does he say about me?

When it comes to the Canon, Simmons treats the traditions of Sherlockiana like a cafeteria, taking what suits his purposes and discarding the rest, but not without the occasional acknowledgement of commonly held beliefs.  His Holmes, for example, is born and raised around Whitechapel, and spends some of his youth in rural Yorkshire poverty; Baring-Gould’s and other biographies are alluded to, but summarily dismissed. The detective’s birthday falls on 4 April, and not 6 January. Mycroft is an agoraphobe (which makes a certain amount of sense). Fans of Violet Hunter and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” may be displeased by the wide disparity between Watson’s account and what Holmes reveals as the much darker (but more realistic) truth. Irene Adler aficionados will be happy to know that she makes an appearance, although, again, they might not be pleased with Simmons’ version, who resembles Rachel MacAdams’ character in the the Guy Ritchie films more than she does the canonical opera singer. Moriarty appears, or re-appears, and while he is creepily reptilian, he does not “oscillate.” Perhaps the most disappointed readers, however, will be those looking for evidence of the great friendship between Holmes and his Boswell. Be warned: Dr. Watson is mentioned, but never appears–and when Holmes speaks of him, it tends to be with some faint irritation, much as one gets from the Rathbone/Bruce films. Sherlock Holmes misses London; he misses the rooms at 221B. But, although he does feel vaguely wistful at one point, it has nothing to do with John H. Watson, M.D.

I will admit that I like my Sherlockian fiction to hew a little more closely to canon and commonly accepted “fanon,” like the January birthday. That being said, nothing Simmons has done with Holmes in this book is without purpose (except, for perhaps, the birthday bit), and it all meshes together to create a coherent universe. Holmes himself is recognizable and a bit on the Rathbone side. The “hidden fires” are not as evident as they have been in recent film versions; he is much more a thinking machine, slightly self-absorbed, who, even when beset with existential questions, will do whatever is necessary to do what is required.

“…if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.” (FINA)

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Sherlock Holmes is not solely concerned with solving Clover Adams’ murder, or with stopping an anarchist plot; he’s also very concerned about whether or not he actually exists. As with our own angsty, metaphysical questions, the detective’s are frequently buried under the demands of his career and daily life, or (with one striking exception) muted with drugs, but he finally finds his answer–or at least the best one he, or any of us, is likely to get.

So, you ask, is Sherlock Holmes real? Is this how he spent part of the Great Hiatus? Has Henry James fallen down some rabbit hole, or dreamed it all in a delirium brought on by a bath in the Seine? Does “The End” appear on page 617 in Sir Arthur’s unmistakable hand? It took me a few days of rolling the book around in my head, but I think I have something figured out. Explaining it would prove spoilery, however, so read the paragraphs below the “Rache” illustration at your own risk–but whichever you choose, do read The Fifth Heart:  it may be the best Sherlock Holmes novel you’ll read all year.

The Fifth Heart is available in both hardback and ebook formats, but is not yet available in paperback. Dan Simmons can be found on his website,, where he has a forum, and on Facebook.

Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5: “Well worth your time and money.”

Canon Rating: 3 out of 5:  Sticklers may be highly irritated.


*I know, I know, but sometimes one must cleanse the palate, as it were.

**I know what he says in On Writing,  but when does Stephen King have time to read, I ask you?

***Beginning in 1891, so that checks out.

†We would expect nothing less. Quotes are from The Fifth Heart, pp. 22 and 23.

†† There were seven attempts on the Queen’s life from 1840 until 1882. The one mentioned by Holmes in this book was thwarted in 1887  (The Fifth Heart, p. 173).

I believe that's German for

I believe that’s German for “Beware! Spoilers below,”


In The Fifth Heart, both Sherlock Holmes and Henry James have reached points in their lives where they have come to question their identities. For Sherlock Holmes, the question is elemental: is he, in fact, a real man, or a popular fictional character whose exploits appear in The Strand Magazine? James, on the other hand, knows that he is real but, as he is about to turn fifty, is experiencing doubts about the choices he’s made, particularly those involving his faltering career and the romantic life which he, like Holmes, eschewed in favor of his Work. With Holmes, James, like a certain Dr. Watson, becomes a writer/adventurer, and experiences adrenaline rushes the like of which he has never even dreamed (seriously, not much adrenaline in a James novel), and which make him feel unbelievably alive– alive in the same way his British counterpoint did, and will again someday.  But, as James never tires of reminding Holmes, he is no Boswell, and he’s no John Watson–but neither is he content any longer to be simply the observer–“the tame cat he always longed to be,” living in the shadow of his dominant brother William. At 50, Henry James isn’t ready to fade away just yet.

Sherlock Holmes, while he knows well the difficulties of dealing with an older, smarter brother, has a different problem altogether.  He lives in the shadow of …himself–or rather the Sherlock Holmes Watson has created and whom the public believes it knows. For them, he is only alive when he is working–when he is serving their purposes–and through the stories and (in 1893) two novels. These, as we have all experienced, do a creditable job of bringing their main characters to life, but it is still a two-dimensional one, made up of character traits, some developmental arcs, and occasional hints at “hidden fires,” pasts, and loss–deftly presented, but not whole. In what is the novel’s pivotal scene, Holmes, James, Clemens and William Dean Howells discuss Holmes’ existential dilemma at Clemens’ Connecticut home, and the Great American Author asks the Great Detective: “Do you enjoy being a detective?”

“It is what I do,” said Holmes after the briefest of pauses.

Clemens nodded as if the answer satisfied him deeply. “The published stories of your adventures are becoming very popular both here and, so I understand it, in England.”

Holmes said nothing to this.

“Are you satisfied with the way Dr. Watson and Mr. Doyle present your adventures?” pressed Clemens.

“I’ve never had the pleasure of making Mr. Doyle’s acquaintance,” Holmes said softly, “As for Watson’s writing–many is the time I’ve told him that his little romances based on my cases mistakenly emphasize drama, and sometimes, I admit, melodrama, rather than the cold, sure science of deduction that he could have shared with interested and intelligent readers.”

Holmes leaned forward on his walking cane. “Furthermore,” he said, “both Watson and his editor and agent, Mr. Doyle, have a deep fear of mentioning any well-known public names–or even private ones, or even the accurate place and time–in the published tales. The published versions hardly ever match the original notes in my case files.”

“But you enjoy being a detective?” Clemens asked again.

“It is what I do,” repeated Holmes.  (p.250)

It is an often unacknowledged fact of adulthood that, to so many, we become what we do, what we provide, rather than who we are. Clemens himself makes this point:

“People wonder why I’ve traveled back to the United States so much–and why I shall continue to do so, no matter how long our European exile [due to financial difficulties] lasts,” Clemens was saying, “so when they ask, ‘Why do you go so much, Mr. Twain?’ I say to them….’Well, I go partly for my health, partly to familiarize myself with the road.’ But mostly I go, gentlemen, primarily to convince the ‘Me’ in me that I truly exist, that there is something more to Mr. Samuel Clemens than his clothes and his wife and his children”  (pp. 255-6)

The “Me” he refers to is the “Me” discussed in William James’  groundbreaking Principles of Psychology (which, conveniently, Clemens says he discussed at length with its author over dinner in Florence).  According to James, individuals are always in flux, always deciding, through their choices of thought and action, who they are at any given moment in time–that they are the sum of those choices. In Clemens’ words:

“I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well-dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher, a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, an African explorer, as well as a ‘tone-poet’ and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. [….]To make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All the other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs are real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them.”  (p. 253)

Sherlock Holmes has, perhaps more than most people, consciously shaped himself into the ultimate consulting detective–as close to a purely logical, totally disciplined (except for the drugs) human being as it is possible to be. Like James, he has forgone many other selves to devote himself to his work, but while James has friends and relationships which, while occasionally difficult, make him feel a cared-for participant in life, Sherlock Holmes wonders if all he really is is the thinking machine with the pipe and the (nonexistent) deerstalker–and if that is all he will ever be.

It is very tempting at this point to tell you what Sherlock Holmes learns, what he discovers, how his real, human self tries to escape the cage of words around him, how he is forced–or forces himself–to become more real than most of us will ever want to be, and how he makes his peace with the deerstalker.

But that would be telling.

Sh asleep in chair

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My Apologies!

Sorry, guys!  WordPress has changed some of its format, and because I am an unobservant idiot, I keep accidentally publishing reviews which aren’t finished yet. I am currently writing a review of Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, but it’s not done yet. Hopefully I have this new system figured out and won’t keep throwing up incomplete work.

“This makes no sense, Holmes.”
“She has no idea what she is doing, Watson”

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Riffenburgh, Beau. Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. New York: Viking, 2013

Frank Wiles illustration from The Valley of Fear

So, is this your first Scintillation?

If you ever find yourself at a Sherlockian event where you don’t know a soul (trust me, this will only happen once), you can break the ice by turning to the person beside you at the table, or behind you in line, and ask: “So, what’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes story?”  Even though they’ve likely been asked dozens of times, that question really never gets old–people adore talking about what they love and why they love it. It could be that they were introduced to Sherlock Holmes when a parent or grandparent handed them A Study in Scarlet, or that The Hound of the Baskervilles thrilled them first on the screen, then on the page. They may enjoy the battle of wits between the Great Detective and The Woman, or be fascinated by the very modern evil of Baron Gruner. Chances are good, however, that there are some stories you will rarely, if ever, hear mentioned. “A Case of Identity,” for example, or the rather uncomfortable “Adventure of the Three Gables.”

I have a confession to make: I used to hate The Valley of Fear. It made no sense to me. Perhaps because I tackled it towards the end of my first Canon binge-read, or perhaps because I am incredibly dense, I had only a vague idea of what was going on in the middle, and imagined that “Birdy Edwards” was also Sherlock Holmes, undercover. Or a girl, because “Birdy.”*  In subsequent returns to the Canonical well, I skipped it, gradually even forgetting that it contains some significant information about Professor Moriarty.** In a very informal online survey of Sherlockians from several different countries, I found that I wasn’t the only one. Compared to its fellow novels, VALL tends to go unloved, with only 3 out of 53 respondents choosing it as their favorite of the four.***  We might consider ourselves slightly vindicated: released in book form in June, 1915 by Smith, Elder, Conan Doyle’s last novel received fairly positive reviews, but even The Liverpool Daily Post found the writing “clumsy.”

Perhaps that’s the same flaw that continues to  work against VALL, or perhaps the history of the labor movement in the United States receives such scant attention in the modern classroom–crammed as it is into the rush from the Civil War to World War 1–that it has lost some resonance for today’s reader. Certainly the “Scowrers” don’t seem to have much connection to any lodge or union we’re familiar with.



And so we read a little faster, hoping to run into some more Moriarty.

Pinkerton’s Great Detective  can change that.

I first encountered Beau Riffenburgh’s biography of Detective James McParland last year, while working on a larger project. I knew, of course, that “The Scowrers” section of VALL was based upon an actual Pinkerton’s undercover mission, and I hoped that the book would essentially point out who was who, and what was what, so I could pound out the requisite paragraphs and move on. I was looking for easy answers. What I got was a new appreciation for both The Valley of Fear and a nuanced look at the beginnings of the modern labor movement and late 19th-century class conflict, as seen through the eyes of a complicated man.

This one.

This one.

Born in Ireland around 1845 (he was baptized on April 6 of that year), McParlan (the “d” would be added later) came from a family of relatively prosperous tenant farmers. After working in English chemical factories through his late teens and early twenties, he emigrated to the United States in June, 1867. He lived in New York, then Chicago, working a succession of jobs, including grocery deliveryman, clerk, logger (in Michigan), teamster, and even (briefly) as a detective for Beaubien & Co. After a stint as an officer for the Chicago PD, he left policing for a more lucrative career in liquor sales, both as a distributor and saloon owner–until the Great Chicago Fire destroyed his store and sent him into bankruptcy. Desperate for work, he joined another detective agency–Pinkerton’s.

Alan Pinkerton’s eponymous agency had distinguished itself during the Civil War, but mounting business debts, the Chicago Fire, and the Panic of 1873 had driven it to the precipice of financial ruin. In his frantic search for well-paying clients, Pinkerton suggested that his close friend and New York manager, George Bangs, offer the agency’s services to Franklin Gowen, head of the rapidly expanding Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The timing, Riffenburgh points out, was propitious for both parties: Pinkerton needed the money, while Gowen needed a tool with which to break the miners’ unions of Pennsylvania’s Schuykill County. Through several years’ skillful maneuvering, Gowen had managed to gain control of the region’s coal supply and transport, and to effectively destroy the Workingman’s Benevolent Association. The latter had proven a serious miscalculation: Although Gowen seems not to have realized it, the WBA–an early miners’ union led by Irish-born John Siney–had actually served as peacekeeper in often volatile communities. Without it, some disgruntled workers turned to more lethal means of getting their point across, exchanging collective bargaining and strike for vandalism, assault, and murder.

Illustration from The Valley of Fear, by Frank Wiles

“Why, I seem to have read of the Scowrers in Chicago. A gang of murderers, are they not?”

In October, 1873, James McParlan, paving the way for his fictional counterpart, Birdy Edwards, took a train deep into Pennsylvania coal country. Like Edwards, he had taken a false name–“James McKenna” to Edwards’ “McMurdo,”–and invented a dodgy background of murder (McMurdo implies he’s killed someone) and counterfeiting. His task was to infiltrate the “Molly Maguires,” a violent organization which Gowen believed–or wished to believe–was part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and connected in some fashion to the WBA. The young detective had been chosen by Alan Pinkerton himself for his sharp wits, story-telling abilities, his devotion to the Catholic Church (which condemned the Mollies) and for his unquestioning acceptance of the Pinkerton dictum that, when it came to justice, the end truly did justify the means. As “McKenna,” McParlan would be expected to develop close relationships, even friendships, with men he would ultimately send to prison, or to the gallows. He would be required to feign criminal activities to the point of becoming a suspect himself. And eventually–although he’d been promised his role would remain secret–he would be required to reveal himself in court, facing those who had trusted him, and setting himself up for perpetual censure, both during the ensuing trials…

…of all the men that deserve punishment this man McParlan deserves twice what anybody charged with crime in this country deserves; if it is true that anybody deserves hanging, this man McParlan ought to be hanged twice, because, if there is an author to this mischief and this deviltry anywhere, McParlan is the man.

–John W. Ryon, Attorney for John “Blackjack” Kehoe and eight other defendants, 1876.

And sixty years later….

His [McParland’s] entire career was based upon tactics so questionable that he can no longer be dismissed with merely a prayer of thanks for ridding the country of a gang of cutthroats.

–J. Walter Coleman, The Molly Maguire Riots, 1936

Riffenburgh spends nearly half of the book on this three year span of McParlan’s life, covering it in marvelous detail that will enable observant Sherlockians (are there any other kind?) to better connect the real life events of “The Scowrers” to Conan Doyle’s interpretations of them. He provides the reader with striking, sympathetic depictions of the bleakness of life in the Schuykill Valley mining towns. Dr Watson might sniff as he imagines Edwards’ reaction to the Vermissa Valley, which were “no resorts for the leisured or the cultured,” but his 21st century counterpart takes the time to examine both the economics behind Gowen’s bid for control of the area industry, and the way in which executive decisions involving a few cents here and a few tons there meant financial ruin for the men who owned nearly nothing and owed nearly everything to the companies which abused them. “Everywhere,” Watson tells us, “there were stern signs of the crudest battle of life, the rude work to be done, and the rude, strong workers who did it.”

Pennsylvania coal miners

Pennsylvania coal miners

Just how “rude” these men were is the question, and it may be one of the reasons why VALL often goes underappreciated today. For James McParlan, the Pinkertons, their clients, and a good portion of the United States populace at the time, the Molly Maguires were nothing more than “a band of roughs joined together for the purpose of instituting revenge against any one of whom they may take a dislike.”†  As time wore on and labor unions made progress, however,  interpretations of groups like the Mollies began to change. By the 1930s, historian J. Walter Coleman portrayed them as “a type of secret labor union, representing a natural response to the exploitation of miners, but differing in ideology, strategy, and ethnic affiliation” from the WBA.† In the most recent academic study of the group, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, Kevin Kenney concludes that, rather than considering them a proto-union, it’s more plausible to see the Mollies’ violent behavior as a an example of “a particular Irish tradition of retributive justice,” directed at individuals “in a sporadic battle to defend a specific vision of what was fair and just in social relations.”†† Many today believe that the Mollies who would ultimately be executed as a result of McParlan’s investigation were martyrs who may have been, at best, unfairly tried and at worst, innocent.

John "Black Jack" Kehoe, was hanged for murder as a Molly Maguire. He was pardoned posthumously in 1979.

John “Black Jack” Kehoe, was hanged for murder as a Molly Maguire. He was pardoned posthumously in 1979.

While Riffenburgh does discuss the tradition of Mollie Maguires, “Ribbon Men,” and similar groups in Irish history, in the end he takes the possibly controversial stance that the men whom McParlan pursued were no one’s heroes, and that they were fairly tried in accordance with the practices of the time–practices which allowed for private prosecutors and jury selection processes which would be considered “stacking” today. Rather than punishing evil mine bosses, men such as Thomas Duffy, Thomas Munley, James Roarity, and others instead targeted men who had crossed them in personal ways–by unnecessary roughness during an arrest, for example,–and, to avoid detection, arranged to have their murders carried out by Mollies from other communities in a quid pro quo system. After devoting several pages to countering various arguments which seek to place McParlan in a bad light, and to portray the Mollies as martyrs, he writes:

…despite the underlying implication, the Molly Maguires were not more worthy of compassion and pity than the men who were killed in cold blood because of agreements between body masters. Those instigating and carrying out the murders and other outrages were not heroes–that role could more safely be ascribed to Siney and those who stood with him in the WBA, working for the betterment of the miners via a peaceful solution.

Riffenburgh, p.160

The author also argues that McParlan was not guilty of many of the sins now attributed to him, namely, those of being an agent provocateur, lying on the stand, and not warning murder victims that they were in danger. Although he acknowledges that the detective was perhaps a little too good at getting confessions from his “colleagues,” and that, in one case, McParlan claimed not to know the name of a target when he demonstrably did, Riffenburgh concludes that the Pinkerton agent was simply unable to get away in time to warn one victim, did not inspire crimes, and was justified in not endangering his own life by blowing his cover to stop all of those crimes of which he had prior knowledge.


Pottsville, PA, circa 1868. One has to imagine that McParlan was glad to put the whole Schuylkill Valley behind him.

Pottsville, PA, circa 1868. One has to imagine that McParlan was glad to put the whole Schuylkill Valley behind him.


By November, 1877, it was all over, and McParlan moved on to the rest of his life, a life that included  solving a poisoning, chasing after Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch,” getting embroiled in the violent Colorado Labor Wars and eventually heading up Pinkerton’s Denver office. In 1906, however, the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg catapulted McParland (the “d” had made its appearance) into a high profile case pitting him against the 20th century’s most famous attorney. The last third of the book is dedicated to the detective’s efforts to bring down, not only the bomber, Harry Orchard, but the labor leaders McParland believed were behind this and other crimes. Simultaneously playing bad cop and (apparently) father confessor, McParland extracted a detailed confession from Orchard, then used it to go after much bigger fish, including the charismatic founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, William “Big Bill” Haywood. McParland’s experience with the Mollies decades before had not only set him firmly against labor unions, but apparently convinced him that men such as Orchard were only tools manipulated by other, more powerful, men for their own gain. “We have unearthed a conspiracy,” he said,

…that will make the blood run cold. This is not a war against organized labor, but it is a war against organized anarchy and dynamite. It is a war against the most damnable and fiendish crimes that ever degraded humanity, and it is a war against as heartless a band of criminals as the authorities of any state or any civilized country have ever had to deal with, and I need not except Russia.‡

Riffenburgh, p.283

The Steunenberg murder roused the ghosts of Schuylkill County in other ways as well.  During those trials, the Molly defense lawyers took the logical step of casting aspersions on McParland’s character and actions. Decades later, Clarence Darrow did the same:

Is there any worse trade than the one that man [McParland] follows? Can you imagine a man being a detective until every other means of livelihood is exhausted? Watching and snaring his fellow men. Is there any other calling in life can sink to that? But yet we have been told it is an honorable profession. Well, that depends on how you look at it…. It is honorable compared with some things the State has done in this case. But it is not honorable in any old-fashioned sense of that word. McParland told the jury that this confession was given freely, voluntarily. Did he lie? Is he a liar?…[C]an you believe a detective at all? What is he? A detective is not a liar, he is a living lie. His whole profession is that, openly and notoriously.

–Clarence Darrow, Adams trial closing argument, quoted in Riffenburgh, p.315.


Charismatic and controversial, Darrow is best known for representing John Scopes in the "Scopes Monkey Trials."

Charismatic and controversial, Darrow is best known for representing John Scopes in the “Scopes Monkey Trials.”

McParland won his battle against the Mollies. Although Harry Orchard spent the rest of his life in prison, the detective lost his battle against Big Labor, just as he would gradually lose the battle against diabetes and old age. Still, he was a Pinkerton to the end, keeping an office for which he was paid, but could no longer truly fill.

I truly enjoyed Pinkerton’s Great Detective. Riffenburgh does an excellent job of guiding the reader through a part of United States history which often gets short shrift in the classroom. Still, I must confess that writing this review has proven extremely difficult. Pinkerton’s Great Detective is essentially three books in one: the first telling the story of the Molly Maguires; the second a sort of anthology of cases; and the third, an account of the Steunenberg case. Once McParland becomes an administrator, his role in cases becomes…less exciting, albeit safer, so that much of the action is usurped by operatives such as the bright adventurer Charles Siringo and the frighteningly cold-blooded Tom Horn. As interesting as these and other men are, they are to some extent placeholders, not simply because McParland was pushing paper, but because he does not seem to have pushed enough.  In his research, Riffenburgh found that, aside from work documents and trial transcripts, the detective left little record of his personal life behind, making his biographer’s job rather difficult. Aside from the occasional impulsive action (such as when he tried to resign his position during the Molly case) and the great affection he had for his family, not much is known of the private McParland–everything is filtered through his professional personae. “As always,” Riffenburgh concludes, “there are more questions than answers.”‡‡

Our Sherlockian bookshelves are often filled with pastiches and reference books written for us, by us. But sometimes it’s nice to branch out. Pinkerton’s Great Detective is an entertainingly written, expertly researched study which illuminates the dark Vermissa Valley, bringing the Scowrers out of the shadows.

Pinkerton’s Great Detective is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats. Normally, I don’t recommend any particular edition; however, the traditional book form doesn’t contain the extensive notes and appendices–those are located online at  The Kindle format contains all of the back matter as well as the text.

Star Rating: 5–This is a wonderful book which gets it right.


*I know, I know.

**VALL is where we learn that Moriarty owned a painting by Grueze, had a brother who is a station master in the West Country, and authored The Dynamics of an Asteroid. It is also where we get the clearest picture of him as a consulting criminal. In my defense, I remembered the information, but just assumed that I had picked it up in FINA.

***For the interested, the results were: STUD (11), SIGN (15), HOUN (24), and VALL (3). My personal favorite is STUD.

†Pinkerton superintendent Benjamin Franklin, report, October 9, 1873 (Riffenburgh, p.26)

††Kenney, Kevin, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, ebook

††† ibid.
‡Readers will no doubt remember that Conan Doyle did not except Russia, either: “The Adventure of the Golden Pince Nez” involves a pair of Russian nihilists.

‡‡ Riffenburgh, p.367

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Happy Birthday, Sherlock Holmes!


And now we come to the end. Or the beginning. At any rate, it’s Sherlock Holme’s 161st birthday, and cause for celebration if there ever was one!

Sherlock Holmes was, and is, an intensely private man who does not bandy about his biographical information. You will not see him chattering on social media–unless he’s setting a trap for some unsuspecting evildoer, much as he manipulated the Agony columns in his early days. But thanks to his Boswell, we do know a little bit about his life outside of the Work, and so, today’s question:

Name two facts about Sherlock Holmes’ family, friends, or early life, and tell us where you found them.

Because the Great Detective is so reticent, and because Watson seems more interested in the details of women’s clothing and loving descriptions of landscapes than in discussing his own family matters, we are duty-bound to uncover their personal information ourselves. Some might call this “stalking.” We prefer to call it “Scholarship,” and much of the best of it can be found between the covers of the Baker Street Journal. So, once again, this year’s Grand Prize is a subscription to the venerable BSJ, for two winners. Just take a quick break from your birthday parties and send your answers via blog comment, FaceBook PM, or Twitter DM.

It's eminently portable!

It’s eminently portable!

As always, thanks so much for playing this year’s Giveaway, whether you played for the prizes or just loved to display you brilliance–and you are all very, very brilliant. Today is also the third anniversary of this blog. I’ve learned a lot, both about reviewing and about Sherlock Holmes through keeping it–from reading, writing, and conversations we’ve shared. I value so very much those connections, and I hope I’ve been helpful and occasionally entertaining. God willing, this year will be our best yet–but not the best ever. The best, one always hopes, is still to come.

And now, in the immortal words of Mycroft Holmes, at least according to Tumblr…..


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Twelfth Night Giveaway: Day 13

Yeah, I know, this is where it gets weird. But to me, Christmas Eve is the best part of the holiday season, and we have to include January 6th…plus, I got too many prizes this year, so we still have a few more to go.

As we all know from the comment fiasco on Day 11, I can be technologically challenged. For example, I managed to upload a research-related calendar into my phone contacts, so when I go to find a phone number, I am reminded of the date of the Siege of Sherpur, Sir Charles Halle’s birthday, or all of the days when Roy the dog attacked Professor Presbury in CREE.

It kind of happened a lot...

It kind of happened a lot…

This would be annoying if I ever called anyone besides my husband and Chinese take-out, but I don’t, so I haven’t really taken the time to erase everything. Which finally turned out to be a good thing, as it’s provided today’s question.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are both highly educated men, both for their time period, and in general, making the Canon replete with scientific, artistic, literary, and historical allusions. So, able scholars, where can you find the references to the following: Jonathan Wilde, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Charles Darwin?

Today’s prize is an example of the wonderful treasures you can find when you explore the Sherlockian offerings on eBay. I’ve never seen anything quite like it: a German movie program for the Hammer version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morrell and Christopher Lee. It’s printed on thin paper and very fragile; I only took it out of its slip cover to photograph it. Images are large so you can see the detail.







One of the best things about being a Sherlockian is knowing how Holmes and Watson bring together people from all over the world–both now, and for the last 128 years. This program is evidence of that connection. As always, to enter the drawing, just send your answers in via blog comment, FB PM or Twitter DM. For full rules, see the entry for 20 December.

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Ok, I figured out the comment problem…..

So sorry, everyone. I am a technological moron, but I have figured out how to enable comments on today’s post. I am sorry for any inconvenience.

And no, as far as I know, I am not related to anyone named Anderson.

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Twelfth Night Giveaway: Day 12

I would be good with this look coming back. Also, cravats. And tails for everyday.

I would be good with this look coming back. Also, cravats. And tails for everyday.

Arthur Conan Doyle completed his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in the spring of 1886; his last, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, was published in 1927. In that span of just over four decades, the world saw a tremendous amount of change, particularly in the areas of science and technology, but also in the arts, fashion, and politics.* A read-through of the Canon highlights these developments–sometimes over time, and occasionally in the same story. You don’t need to be a brilliant detective to deduce the topic of today’s question, then:

Give one example of change we can find in the Canon, either in one story, or over the course of the entire oeuvre. Your answer can be from any field: science, technology, crime, the arts, fashion, politics, transportation, communication–use your imagination! The only restriction is that you back up your answers using the original stories and novels.

So no Robot Watsons.

So no Robot Watsons.

Now, if you notice, we are now on Day 12 of the Twelfth Night Giveaway, and I find myself in an interesting situation. Basically, I have too many prizes. Way too many. I know what I will be offering tomorrow, and as it’s unique and exciting, I would like to feature it on its own. I also know what the grand prize will be on January 6th. Therefore, today I will be doing, basically, a “prize dump,” with several items up for grabs. When you send in your answers, be sure and include which prizes you would like to try for, and PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO INCLUDE MORE THAN ONE!  Also, if you are not a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, I apologize in advance for…well…keep scrolling and you’ll see….

(via Tumblr)

(via Tumblr)

Prize 1:

Elementary, Season 2

I must admit, I haven’t seen this season, but if you’re a fan, this is your chance. Right now, I can only offer a Region 1 DVD set, so make sure you have a Region 1 or all-region player. It may be possible to send you an iTunes or Kindle version as well.
elementary s2

Prize 2:

If you’re a Rathbone fan, you might be interested in this 3-photo set, including a nice family group of Basil, his wife Ouida, and his son, John Rodion. All are 8×10 prints.


If you are not a fan of BBC Sherlock, look away now. You were warned.  ;)

Prize 3:

If you are a fan of BBC Sherlock, and of Mr. Cumberbatch, then you know we had an embarrassment of riches this year. So much press!  So many photoshoots! So many interviews!!!  Because of this, I ended up with a tremendous number of magazines which I realized it would be impossible to use as one prize, as originally intended. There are too many of them–and they’re too heavy–to ship without incurring some damage, both to my pocketbook, and to the mags themselves. I’ve therefore divided them into 7 lots of 3-4 each. Note that some of these, particularly Empire and EW will have other Sherlockian actors in them as well–I saw Martin Freeman, Mark Gattiss, RDJ, Jude Law, and Sir Ian McKellan. I also have some strays, so don’t be suprised if you end up with a small magazine stowaway. Because our mail deliverer has a predilection for stuffing envelopes of every size in the mailbox, conveniently disregarding the “Do Not Bend” stamp, some of these–particularly the GQs–are not in pristine condition, but I tried. If you have any questions about the content, feel free to contact me via PM or in the comments–and feel free to put your name in for more than one if you like. Here they are:

Lot 1:

Empire Set

Empire Set

Lot 2:

2 GQs and The Big Issue

2 GQs and The Big Issue

Lot 3: 

People, Entertainment Weekly, The Big Issue, and Elle UK (still in wrapper)

People, Entertainment Weekly, The Big Issue, and Elle UK (still in wrapper)

Lot 4: 

Elle UK (still in wrapper); Entertainment Weekly, and US Vogue

Elle UK (still in wrapper); Entertainment Weekly, and US Vogue

Lot 5:

People, Vanity Fair, The Big Issue, High Life

People, Vanity Fair, The Big Issue, High Life

Lot 6:

New York Times Magazine, Out, Entertainment Weekly, Odeon

New York Times Magazine, Out, Entertainment Weekly, Odeon

Lot 7:

Telegraph. Time Out London, Vogue, The Big Issue

Telegraph. Time Out London, Vogue, The Big Issue

And there you are!  To enter the drawings, just send your answer and prize choices to me via blog comment, FaceBook PM, or Twitter DM. For full rules, see the blog post for 20 December. Thanks for playing!


*Watson, Holmes, and Sir Arthur were all born in the 1850’s; Mycroft Holmes in 1847. Obviously 3 of those individuals are still alive, but give everyone a natural lifespan of 70-85, and you have men who were born in the age of the crinoline and died just before the Second World War and the atom bomb. In a similar vein, imagine the experiences of men and women who were born in the 1870s and survived into the 1950’s and 60’s. Even if I get 40 more years, I can’t imagine that I’ll see change on nearly that level; it must have been incredible.

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