When writing almost any story on private
investigators, a quick comparison of the life of a modern day investigator
with his fictional film-noir counterpart is an easy, but lazy opener.
The contrast couldn’t be greater. But Google’s amazing newspaper archive search
function, suggests this was not always so.
Admittedly the, some of the stories, like
this one from Australian newspaper The Age, from April 1930 can make the
most exciting story seem droll and lifeless.
However, fast forward a few decades and newspapers with
names like the Toledo Blade are filled with stories every bit as exciting as
you’d expect from a newspaper with a name straight from a Chandler novel.
story from 1967 telling of masked bandits who stole and ransomed a rare coin
collection, including a set of Russian coins, has the makings of a classic noir
thriller-plot, complete with twists and turns.
Look no further for sharp dialogue either. Private Detective William Stanton, hired to
negotiate the coins’ return, said of the gang: “They’ve got a real hot potato on their hands...” presumably whilst
lighting a cigarette, adjusting his fedora and downing the last of a large neat
Coins from the collection have been turning up in the most
unexpected places ever since. One of
the rarest was found taped securely under the bandage on a petty hoodlum’s leg
when he was admitted to hospital following a severe beating from an angry
Others were recovered in complicated FBI stings and most of
the discoveries contain elements that could be straight from the plot of the
latest Coen Brothers movie. Sadly the
Russian coins that make up the bulk of the collection remain missing to this
Google’s newspaper archive is a trove of such stories. Take this example from the Milwaukee Journal,
July 1936, for instance, in which private detective Sheridan. A. Bruseaux –
described as ‘a dapper negro investigator’ was hired to look into a suspicious
boxing match between Joe ‘Brown Bomber’ Louis and Max Shmeling. The Brown Bomber was said to have been
Again, the story contains all the hallmarks of great noir,
including the quote from fast-talking fight promoter Mike Jacobs, who denied
the allegations in the following hard-boiled vernacular: “Louis told me by telephone the only drug he
had was in the fourth round – Max Schmelling’s right hand punches.”
A little further research on our investigator reveals
something unexpected too. Sheridan spent
five years as an agent in the US Secret Service in World War One Europe, before
founding the Keystone National Detective Agency, described
in 1923 as ‘the only Coloured Licensed and Bonded Detective Agency in the
If the tales above contain disparate elements of noir, this
last story dating from long the private eye was in fashionable in fiction
has the lot, with a good dose of The Godfather thrown in for good measure.
The saga from the Warsaw Daily Times, March 1891, sets out
the details of a Vigilance committee in New Orleans bent on ridding the city of
undesirables. Members order 30 men
suspected of involvement in jury-fixing to leave the city or face the
The report states: “Among those warned is Dominic O’Malley, the private detective, but it
is reported that he swears he will remain and will make trouble for anyone
interfering with him. The vigilance
committee members are determined men, and trouble with O’Malley is anticipated
because whatever his connection with the alleged jury fixing, or other
crookedness, he is a man of undoubted grit.”
The story has everything – a tough anti-hero, warring mafia
factions, angry vigilantes, repentant mobsters, corruption and murder.
The report quotes Italian priest Father Manoritta, who
estimates Mafia numbers to be around 360 in the City of New Orleans, with
around 80 of those men being escaped convicts from Italy. These insights, as well as the description of
how the incident almost became an international incident, is a fascinating glimpse
into the infancy of one of the world’s most infamous criminal