As all armchair detectives know, the small but vital clue that'll crack a mystery is often hidden in plain sight, and through May 31 in the Treasure Room at the Doheny Memorial Library at USC, the exhibition “True Crime” is showcasing many pieces of crime history worth examining.
The line between fact and fiction, between real detectives and the ones you read about or see onscreen, has long been blurred. This exhibit came about after successful crime-related talks given as part of the Visions and Voices Art & Humanities Initiative got the USC curators thinking about the darker side of their archives.
On entering the small room, co-curators Tyson Gaskill and Anne-Marie Maxwell immediately turn to a handwritten letter from the very first private detective in the world, the French rogue-turned-police captain Eugène François Vidocq.
“We found this letter in the USC archives, and we didn’t even know we had it,” says Maxwell, adding that it was pasted and folded haphazardly into Vidocq's memoirs, which also are on display. “Sometimes my job is just too fun,” she adds.
Gaskill explains: “We then had one of our professors translate it, and she told us it was a report about Vidocq watching the location where a suspect was supposed to be hiding out.”
Vidocq’s Parisian detective force inspired Robert Peel to set up the first London force in the 1800s (nicknamed “Bobbies” in his honor), and sparked Edgar Allan Poe to write what's considered the first modern detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Sherlock Holmes is represented here, too. L.A. resident and Holmes expert Leslie Klinger has contributed pieces from his personal collection to the exhibit.
Other cool artifacts: a 1941 letter to Warner Bros. asking about the story behind the Maltese Falcon, and Warner Bros.’ impressively straight-faced, historical-sounding explanation sent in return. Next to the letter in a case is the falcon itself in all its black, feathered glory.
Making his way through the room of glass display cases, Gaskill points out the first flier handed out in relation to a child abduction — in 1874 in Philadelphia — and a 1953 L.A. Examiner article about how the case was never solved.
The Los Angeles Police Museum sent some never-before-seen artifacts to the exhibit, too, and Maxwell marvels over the ancient, apothecary-like fingerprint kit – “it still has the original brushes and black powder.”
She moves to the force’s Gangster Book (the official title; it’s written in red on the cover), which is full of mug shots of well-dressed men and women from the early 1900s. There's also a scrapbook that belonged to an unknown former LAPD detective. It's stuffed full of newspaper clippings and crime-scene photos of a young man face-down in the street – and then on the coroner’s slab.
“That was the least disturbing page we could show,” says Maxwell.
In the middle of the room is a battered desk, replete with an old-style radio playing shows like Dragnet and Dick Tracy, a rotary phone, a typewriter and some yellowed photographs, one of which shows a man singled out from a group with an arrow and the word “papa.”
The man in the photo is Dashiell Hammett, who was a Pinkerton detective before he became an author of detective stories. An amazing story that’s begging for HBO to make a series about, the men of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were the de facto police of the American West from 1850 onward.
“At their height they had 30,000 to 40,000 private detectives on their payroll, more than soldiers in the U.S. Army,” Gaskill says.
Maxwell then points out posters of 1970s cult movies Dirty Harry and Shaft and an exposé book by a former Pinkerton man, which confirmed that, like Harry Callahan, they weren’t above bending the rules and cracking a few heads to get results.
Hammett’s chronicles of Sam Spade and especially Raymond Chandler’s writings about Philip Marlowe gave us that most L.A.-ist of crime: noir. With detectives like Sgt. Joe Friday looking for “just the facts” as they cleaned up the streets in the 1950s, others were working in the gray margins on the page, screen or airwaves, and becoming as iconic as those with an official badge.
“It’s like the shows that are ‘ripped from the headlines,'” says Maxwell, pointing out the surrealness of a pile of books “written” by Richard Castle, the eponymous hero of the television series, and then a green book of detective stories written by Allan Pinkerton himself.
She gestures toward the handy crime-fighting belt (complete with iPod) that Nancy Drew wore in the 2007 movie and a photo of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple together.
The LAPD Museum loaned the museum one of the official windbreakers detectives have to wear on the job (not available for sale), and alongside it is one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels, the Clue board game, a book about Biggie’s murder and the L.A. Noire video game.
The clues are all here, and as you pass through the hallowed library halls of stained glass and vaulted ceilings before hitting the streets again, it’s reassuring to know these men — and women — (real or not), are still fighting the good fight for the citizens in the City of Angels.