Category Archives: True Crime

The Queen of Disguise

The Queen of Disguise

Known as the ‘Queen of Disguise’, Annette Kerner was a leading detective in the 1940s. Born into a wealthy family, Annette trained as a mezzo-soprano with Ivor Novello’s mother, Clara, before opening the Mayfair Detective Agency in the 1920s.

Annette’s parents opposed her singing career so, aged seventeen, Annette secretly negotiated a singing contract with a nightclub in Geneva. While crossing the Channel to France, she flirted with a fellow passenger who told her that he was an intelligence officer keeping an eye on a suspected foreign agent. The passenger went on to explain that the agent’s briefcase contained vital evidence of his guilt. Eager to impress her new friend, Annette calmly stole the briefcase and presented it to him. The agent responded by contacting his London headquarters; he urged his bosses to employ Annette as a freelance, and they agreed.

Annette Kerner

Annette Kerner, in disguise

Drawn into the world of spying, Annette left the Geneva nightclub and sang instead at a Zürich club, a popular haunt of intelligence agents. She mingled with those agents with ease and when the time arrived for her to return to London she decided that a routine career was not for her and so opened her detective agency.

Although small in stature, Annette was a fearsome opponent and from her Baker Street office she mixed with criminals from all classes. During one investigation in the 1920s, Annette posed as an opium addict. She entered an opium den and to allay suspicion she sampled the drug. She was also held captive during the same investigation and had her wrists slashed, though ultimately she did assist the police in arresting the culprit.

In 1948, Leader magazine described Annette as ‘the woman of a hundred faces – at one moment she is a neat, matronly children’s nurse pushing a pram, only to confront a gentleman blackmailer, then she is an untidy waitress in a dingy backstreet restaurant mixing with fences.’ During her eventful career Annette took on the role of a cheerful char lady, a society vamp and a modest widow proving that female detectives can be as tough as their male colleagues, and just as resourceful.

Serpico

Serpico

Serpico was based on Peter Maas’ biography of New York Police Department officer Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corruption in the police force. Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, the film was released in 1973 and was a great commercial and critical success. Furthermore, Al Pacino won his first Golden Globe award for Best Actor in 1974 for his portrayal of Frank Serpico. Indeed, critics proclaim that the role of Frank Serpico is one of the highlights of Al Pacino’s career.

The film covers twelve years in the life of Frank Serpico, from 1960 to 1972. During his career, Serpico uncovered mass corruption in the N.Y.P.D. and he exposed this corruption to the authorities. However, far from being grateful and supportive they turned their backs on Serpico, exposing him to harassment and persecution. This harassment and persecution culminated in a shooting, when Serpico was wounded in the face during a drug raid on the 3rd February 1971.

The story was filmed on the streets of New York City and the real-life Frank Serpico looked on during the filming. However, Sidney Lumet considered that Serpico’s presence on the set would distract and inhibit the actors, especially Al Pacino, and so he was asked to leave.

In real-life, Frank Serpico grew his beard and hair, totally altering his appearance from clean-cut police officer to shaggy-haired hippy hero. In the film, this change of appearance was depicted by filming the scenes in reverse order, gradually trimming a hirsute Al Pacino as the scenes moved back in time.

Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into N.Y.P.D. corruption. The inquiry sat between 1970 and 1972. On resigning from the police force Serpico was awarded the Medal of Honor and a disability pension. With his police career over, but his integrity intact, he moved to Wales and then Switzerland.

Happy St David’s Day

To help celebrate St David’s Day, The Detective Issue #2 will be offered free today on Amazon’s Kindle. If you are able please take advantage of this offer. The Detective Issue #2

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Jack the Ripper

I am researching Jack the Ripper for a future Sam Smith story and for a novel set in 1888. Personally, I don’t think any of the ‘usual suspects’, George Chapman, Francis Tumblety, Aaron Kosminski, etc was Jack the Ripper and I doubt that his true identity will be found. Nevertheless, the man holds a gruesome fascination and, of course, the subject matter is ripe for a detective novelist.

jack-the-ripper

From the Illustrated London News, 1888, Aaron Kosminski – was this man Jack the Ripper?

The Detective Issue #2

The second issue of The Detective is now available from Amazon. Tomorrow, Issue #1 of The Detective will be offered free on Amazon so please take advantage of this offer if you are able…. The Detective Issue #2

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Vidocq – The First Detective

Vidocq – The First Detective

Eugene Francois Vidocq, born in 1775, was a thief turned detective, Europe’s first bona fide private eye. At fourteen he killed a fencing master in a duel and this incident paved the way to a life of crime. After serving his time as a convict in the galleys, Vidocq became a police spy and later the head of the Paris Surete.

Vidocq

Eugene Francois Vidocq

A powerful physical specimen with a leonine head and muscular arms, Vidocq was the son of a respected baker from Arras. After killing the fencing instructor Vidocq stole two thousand francs from his father’s safe and fled to America. However, within a year he was destitute and so returned to the family home.

Back in France he joined the Bourbon Regiment and within six months he was involved in no less than fifteen duels. His thirst for action produced many brave acts, particularly in a battle at Valmy in 1792. However, far from being regarded as a hero, Vidocq’s violent acts led to his banishment from his home town.

A period of womanizing and gambling followed and at times Vidocq was arrested, only to escape – in Toulon he fell in behind a funeral cortege and walked to freedom.

A life of serious crime beckoned though Vidocq, for all his misdeeds, had no wish to travel down that road. Instead he met with a Paris policeman called Henry, nicknamed the Bad Angel and the two men struck a deal – an amnesty if Vidocq became a secret police agent. Faced with a lengthy spell in prison, Vidocq could hardly refuse.

A natural, Vidocq soon adapted to undercover police work and the man became something of a legend, both in the Paris police and the criminal underworld. His physical gifts and his detective skills ensured that by 1811 he was serving as the first full-time detective in the Paris police. Gaining in confidence and influence he proposed the creation of the Surete, a proposal that was readily accepted.

The Surete with its twenty-four full-time agents and network of police spies soon became a great success in fighting crime. The agents were not paid a salary. Instead, they were rewarded with expenses and a fee for every arrest.

At heart, Vidocq was a showman and he ensured maximum publicity for every success. His reputation helped to secure a decent pension and he retired in 1827, aged fifty-two. However, in retirement he was far from idle. He opened a paper mill, employing former criminals in an effort to rehabilitate them. Sadly, this public-spirited venture was not a commercial success and, insolvent, Vidocq was forced to return to the Surete.

In 1836 Vidocq retired for a second time and on this occasion he set up a private detective agency, twenty years before Pinkerton established his agency in Chicago. Playing a game he knew well, Vidocq ensured that his agency was a great success, often outflanking the police in the best traditions of detective fiction. Unfortunately success brought jealousy and Vidocq’s offices were raided by the police. Over three thousand files were seized, many of them police files, and Vidocq was arrested on charges of corrupting the civil service. Vidocq was convicted, but won an appeal. However, the bad publicity surrounding his arrest brought the curtain down on his agency.

Insolvent again, Vidocq turned to his pen. He wrote Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent in the French Police. With the aid of a ghost writer the memoirs were a great success. Blending fact with fiction Vidocq’s stories were the earliest of their type and they went on to influence the cultural perception we have of the private eye.

After leading a colourful life Vidocq was finally granted a pardon in 1843. His legacy as a policeman is a substantial one, yet you could argue that his memoirs are more important because they paved the way for the plethora of Victorian detective stories that followed and still influence the detective fiction we read and write today.

The Big Cheese

In 1906 two Carlisle colliers, John Torrance and James Miller, were down on their luck. However, they came up with a plan: burgle the local Co-operative Society store. The men planned their burglary and slipped into the store unnoticed. They helped themselves to everything they could carry, though had to leave a great deal behind. One item proved too tempting to leave in the store – a piece of cheese. So they nibbled the cheese, discarded the leftovers and thought nothing of it.

cheese

John Torrance and James Miller were feeling pleased with themselves, until they discovered that no two sets of teeth are identical and that a sharp-eyed policeman had noticed the piece of cheese with the bite marks. Despite the villains knocking out teeth stumps to try to avoid identification, a dentist matched the resulting bite marks with a cast of the suspects’ teeth, leading to a conviction at Cumberland Assizes and a sentence of three years imprisonment.

Footnote: teeth marks in a piece of cheese were later used in Agenda For Murder, an episode of Columbo, when Columbo ensnares a ruthless attorney by matching bite marks on chewing gum with bite marks on a piece of cheese.