November 21, 2013


Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. By Beau Riffenburgh. Viking. $32.95.

Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah”—and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured. By Patrick Robinson. Da Capo. $26.99.

     Not all wars are declared as such; not all wars are between nations. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States, after the Civil War, was often at war with itself in nonmilitary ways, as the Industrial Revolution fully took hold, the nation became less agricultural in focus, cities expanded dramatically, immigrant issues proliferated, and robber barons ruled the manufacturing sector with a ruthlessness matched only by that of those determined – for reasons of their own – to oppose them. This is a period largely forgotten and little understood today: who remembers William Jennings Bryan’s once-famous “cross of gold” speech and the reasons behind it, or the Panic of 1893 (one of those reasons) and the near-destruction of the silver industry? Beau Riffenburgh brings that time to vivid life – and skillfully limns some of the major figures within it – in Pinkerton’s Great Detective, nominally the story of James McParland (1843 or 1844-1919) but also a story of a rough-and-tumble, deadly time. It was an era that comes across as far more exciting in Riffenburgh’s book than it likely was to the people who had to live through and endure it. McParland was a colorful and highly controversial figure, often thought to be in league with mine owners as they fought back against unionization attempts that, in the 19th century, were fraught with vicious coercion up to and including murder. McParland is perhaps best known today for his successful infiltration of the Molly Maguires, a miners’ group whose violent tactics were fed in part by the fact that they were Irish Catholics at a time when there was substantial prejudice against them. There is little doubt that the Molly Maguires committed murder and other violent acts, but there is, to this day, doubt about whether McParland and the Pinkerton agency caught the culprits, or caught all the culprits, or caught a mixture of criminals and innocents. And so it was to be through much of McParland’s career – a career that Riffenburgh traces largely through recently released Pinkerton archives that, not surprisingly, cast both the agency and its famed detective in a highly favorable light. Riffenburgh does make some attempts at balance, but he mostly uses his research to re-create in meticulous detail a series of investigations and court cases that many readers will find tiresome and difficult to follow, so filled are they with names, places, dates and acronyms. One random example: “During cross-examination by Kaercher, Butler suddenly admitted that leaders of the AOH had proposed many crimes, including when Dennis ‘Bucky’ Donnelly had ordered him and a man named Pat Shaw to murder Sanger. He also told of Hurley’s plans to murder Gomer James, Hurley’s subsequent claims, and Kehoe’s decision for him and McParlan to investigate.”

     Notice that “McParlan” spelling. That is the name with which McParland was born, and the two spellings coexist uneasily during this book. Riffenburgh eventually explains that the detective’s relatives in Ireland added the final “d” in the mid-1870s and “by 1879, the Pinkerton’s operative had added a final ‘d’ to his name as well.” This is straightforward, but the coexistence of the names within the narrative makes things unnecessarily confusing – not only in the text but also in the captions of the photos, where one photo caption features “McParlan testifying” and another, two pages later, refers to someone involved in “one of McParland’s most high-profile cases.” The photos themselves are most welcome, lending a sense of the real world to stories that could easily spin out of control: McParland was a legend in his own time, partly a legend of his own making, and separating fact from fiction in his life and cases is by no means easy. It is hard to know how successfully Riffenburgh has done this. His reliance on the Pinkerton documents skews his interpretations in a particular direction, but there is no reason to think there is anything wrong with that. Still, McParland’s detractors, and there were many of them, get somewhat short shrift here. So do some famous disagreements associated with him: he was included in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale, The Valley of Fear, as the character Birdy Edwards, but the positive portrayal of McParland did not sit at all well with Pinkerton and caused a rift between him and Doyle – for complex reasons that are barely touched upon in Riffenburgh’s book. Still, despite its flaws, Pinkerton’s Great Detective brings to life a fascinating man, a fascinating time, and a series of genuinely interesting cases: McParland worked for, among others, railroad tycoon Jay Gould; he helped catch the man who committed the largest theft of gold bullion in U.S. history; he probed the assassination of an Idaho governor who was killed by an explosive device attached to the gate of his picket fence; and on and on. Unfortunately, what is wholly missing from Riffenburgh’s book – a lack he himself admits – is any significant authorial detective work about the detective’s private life; there is “no proof of what McParland was like as a husband, a father, a brother, or a son,” and no solid information about his emotional life or his reaction to tragedies such as the deaths of two young daughters. Riffenburgh’s bland concluding statement that McParland will “forever remain an enigma” is disappointing: a thorough biography needs to get behind the public face of its subject, especially one whose career is as filled with controversy and mythmaking as McParland’s was. In this respect, Riffenburgh falls short; but in many others, he provides considerable information and a thorough recounting of the events in the professional life of a genuinely intriguing historical figure.

     The history is far more recent, the undeclared war far fresher, and the men at the center of the narrative far different in Patrick Robinson’s Honor and Betrayal, one in a lengthy series of books about the worldwide fight against terrorism and the excesses that accompany the successes. This is the story of Matthew McCabe, Jonathan Keefe and Sam Gonzales, three Navy SEALs who were part of a team that stormed an al Qaeda desert stronghold and captured the terrorist known as the “Butcher of Fallujah” for arranging the 2004 murder and mutilation of four American contractors. Told largely from the viewpoint of McCabe and Keefe, who have left the service and can therefore speak freely, the book details the SEALs’ own difficulties to a greater extent than it discusses the battle against terrorist murderers and the SEALs’ place within it. Acting in accordance with terrorist battle plans, Ahmad Hashim Abd al-Isawi claimed shortly after his capture that he had been beaten by the three SEALs, who were summarily placed under house arrest and pressured to sign confessions. They refused, demanding courts-martial, and thus setting the stage for a legal drama in which – according to Robinson – high military commanders were determined to get convictions and the SEALs were equally determined to prove their innocence. Robinson likes to write, or rather overwrite, in a slam-bang action-movie style, perhaps with an eye toward an eventual film: “Matt and his men may have been well under the radar, but they sure as hell were not above suspicion, not to some desert nomad being scared half to death by six turbo-shaft engines screaming above his head in the middle of the night, shattering the quiet of these biblical lands.” And there is no doubt at all about Robinson’s viewpoint on the situation: the book starts with “open letters” from McCabe and Keefe to Admiral Sean Pybus, commander of the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Command, with comments about, among other things, “a proud US Navy SEAL, branded a bully, idler and a liar, on the word of a mass murderer and terrorist.” In case the letters do not make it clear enough that Robinson’s purpose is to exonerate the SEALs fully and completely, the author offers such chapter titles as “We Want This Maniac Alive,” “A Presumption of Guilt,” and “Scapegoats of Empire.” By the book’s epilogue, Robinson is writing of McCabe and Keefe after their trials, “a flame deep within them had flickered. It had not died; after all, they were both supremely well trained and dedicated special operators. But it would never burn so brightly again.” As an apologia for McCabe and Keefe, and by extension for Gonzales, Honor and Betrayal is effective: it reads like a skilled defense attorney’s brief (a very extended one) to a higher court. But as a book, it is less so, precisely because it is so one-sided. There is really little doubt that McCabe and Keefe were the good guys and al-Isawi a vicious murderer. But the factors leading military higher-ups to prosecute (Robinson would say persecute) the SEALs, even in light of massive public condemnation of the courts-martial and despite a congressional uproar, are much less clear. Robinson’s eventual comment that “once the commanders had crossed that line, had determined to establish ‘prisoner abuse,’ there was no way back,” is at best facile and incomplete. McCabe and Keefe get a rousing, self-guided defense in Honor and Betrayal, but they would have been better served with a more-nuanced book, even if it turned into one that showed them in a less-favorable light than Robinson’s does.

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