Saturday, December 14, 2013

What Are REAL Detectives Like?

By Arthur Train (1875-1945).
Charles Scribner's Sons.
1912. 253 pages. $1.50
Chapter V ("Detectives and Others") and Chapter VI ("Detectives Who Detect").
If anybody living in 1912 would know what real-life detectives were doing, it would be Arthur Train. Let's hope they've improved since then.

A DETECTIVE, according to the dictionaries, is one "whose occupation it is to discover matters as to which information is desired, particularly wrongdoers, and to obtain evidence to be used against them." A private detective, by the same authority, is one "engaged unofficially in obtaining secret information for or guarding the private interests of those who employ him." The definition emphasizes the official character of detectives in general as contrasted with those whose services may be enlisted for hire by the individual citizen, but the distinction is of little importance, since it is based arbitrarily upon the character of the employer (whether the State or a private client) instead of upon the nature of the employment itself, which is the only thing which is likely to interest us about detectives at all.
The sanctified tradition that a detective was an agile person with a variety of side-whiskers no longer obtains even in light literature, and the most imaginative of us is frankly aware of the fact that a detective is just a common man earning (or pretending to earn) a common living by common and obvious means. Yet in spite of ourselves we are accustomed to attribute superhuman acuteness and a lightning-like rapidity of intellect to this vague and romantic class of fellow-citizens. The ordinary work of a detective, however, requires neither of these qualities. Honesty and obedience are his chief requirements, and if he have intelligence as well, so much the better, provided it be of the variety known as horse sense. A genuine candidate for the job of Sherlock Holmes would find little competition. In the first place, the usual work of a detective does not demand any extraordinary powers of deduction at all.
. . . if the ordinary householder finds that his wife's necklace has mysteriously disappeared, his first impulse is to send for a detective of some sort or other. In general, he might just as well send for his mother-in-law.
The real detective is the one who, taking up the solution of a crime or other mystery, brings to bear upon it unusual powers of observation and deduction and an exceptional resourcefulness in acting upon his conclusions. Frankly, I have known very few such, although for some ten years I have made use of a large number of so-called detectives in both public and private matters.
There is no more reason to look for superiority of intelligence or mental alertness among detectives of the ordinary class than there is to expect it from clerks, stationary engineers, plumbers, or firemen. While comparisons are invidious, I should be inclined to say that the ordinary chauffeur was probably a brighter man than the average detective. This is not to be taken in derogation of the latter, but as a compliment to the former.
. . . there is no class in the world where the temptation to dishonesty is greater than among detectives—not even among plumbers, cabmen, butchers, and lawyers. (God knows the peril of all of these!) This, too, is, I fancy, the reason that the evidence of the police detective is received with so much suspicion by jurymen—they know that the only way for him to retain his position is by making a record and getting convictions, and hence they are always looking for jobs and frame-ups. If a police detective doesn't make arrests and send a man to jail every once in a while there is no conclusive way for his superiors to be sure he isn't loafing.
Agencies recruited from deposed and other ex-policemen usually have all the faults of the police without any of their virtues. There are many small agencies which do reliable work, and there are a number of private detectives in all the big cities who work single-handed and achieve excellent results. However, if he expects to accomplish anything by hiring detectives, the layman or lawyer must first make sure of his agency or his man.
One other feature of the detective business should not be overlooked. In addition to charging for services not actually rendered and expenses not actually incurred, there is in many cases a strong temptation to betray the interests of the employer.
It is a peculiarity of criminals that they cannot keep their secrets locked in their own breasts. The impulse to confession is universal, particularly in women. Egotism has some part in this, but the chief element is the desire for companionship. Criminals have a horror of dying under an alias. The dignity of identity appeals even to the tramp.
There are detectives—real ones—on the police force of all the great cities of the world to-day, most of them specialists, a few of them geniuses capable of undertaking the ferreting out of any sort of mystery, but the last are rare. The police detective usually lacks the training, education, and social experience to make him effective in dealing with the class of elite criminals who make high society their field. Yet, of course, it is this class of crooks who most excite our interest and who fill the pages of popular detective fiction.
There are two classes of cases where a private detective must needs be used, if indeed any professional assistance is to be called in: first, where the person whose identity is sought to be discovered or whose activities are sought to be terminated is not a criminal or has committed no crime, and second, where, though a crime has been committed, the injured parties cannot afford to undertake a public prosecution.
Most of us do detective work all the time without being conscious of it. Simply because the matter concerns the theft of a pearl, or the betraying of a business or professional secret, or the disappearance of a friend, the opinion of a stranger becomes no more valuable. And the chances are equal that the stranger will make a bungle of it.
It goes without saying, of course, that a detective per se has no more right to make an arrest than any private citizen—nor has a policeman, for that matter, save in exceptional cases. The officer is valuable for his dignity, avoirdupois, "bracelets" and other accessories. The police thus get the credit of many arrests in difficult cases where all the work has been done by private detectives, and it is good business for the latter to keep mum about it.
The agency which offers you the services of a Sherlock Holmes is a fraud, but you can accept as genuine a proposition to run down any man whose picture you may be able to identify in the gallery. The day of the impersonator is over. The detective of this generation is a hard-headed business man with a stout pair of legs.
After the criminal is known or "located," the "trailing" begins and his "connections" are carefully studied. This may or may not require what might be called real detective work; that is to say, work requiring a superior power of deducing conclusions from first-hand information, coupled with unusual skill in acting upon them.
Under present conditions it is easier to overtake a crook than to reason out what he will probably do. In fact, the old-fashioned "deductive detective" is largely a man of the past. The most useless operator in the world is the one who is "wedded to his own theory" of the case—the man who asks no questions and relies only on himself. Interject a new element into a case and such a man is all at sea. In the meantime the criminal has made his "get away."
. . . the chief characteristic of successful criminals [is] egotism. The essential quality of daring required in their pursuits gives them an extraordinary degree of self-confidence, boldness, and vanity. And to vanity most of them can trace their fall.
- A Wikipedia article ("Arthur Cheney Train").
- A GAD Wiki article.
- Online text.

Category: Detective fiction

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