The renowned private eye reviews his life and loves.
The title is slightly misleading: Allan Pinkerton has more than one secret. He sympathizes with abolitionist John Brown, provides a station on the underground railway, thwarts a plot against the life of Abraham Lincoln, cunningly exposes Confederate spies in Washington, D.C., and—most prominently in this first novel by screenwriter Lerner—carries on a clandestine love affair with Kate Warne, an operative in his soon-to-be-famous agency. Pinkerton absconded from Scotland in 1843 with a 15-year-old bride, then settled in rural Illinois. He took up sleuthing in his spare time, so successfully that he was recruited as deputy sheriff in Chicago, where he became known for undermining the tactics of the local police by ferreting out information using a variety of disguises. As the story begins in 1856, his fledgling detective firm consists of five people, and his life is about to change radically with the arrival of Warne, an attractive young widow who persuades him to hire her as the agency’s first female operative. Eventually their professional relationship heats up, and they become lovers. Yet they never drop their metaphorical disguises; the two sleuths expose others’ secret selves but not their own. Pinkerton has a hand in various political activities both before and during the Civil War. His greatest failure comes when his best operative, Timothy Webster, is executed as a spy in Richmond. Pinkerton feels terrible guilt: Timothy was engaged to Kate, and her lover thinks he could have tried harder to save her fiancé. Throughout the novel, Pinkerton, an avowed atheist, is openly contemptuous of his wife’s pious belief that “God runs an orderly universe.” He senses chaos both in his personal life and in the world at large.
Despite some grating linguistic anachronisms (“gobbledygook,” “I’ll have his ass in a sling”), a novel of wonderful historical plausibilities.