An elegy for the dying breed of San Francisco private eyes

I've always enjoyed reading and writing detective fiction; really, if any story has a noir vibe, I'm in. I'm certainly not alone in, but I've also found it curious considering how little we actually hear about modern day private investigators. Sure, the Pinkertons are still around busting unions and providing private security for rich people trying to escape the effects of climate change. Most other stories you hear about private businesses collecting information for clients involve Defense contractors like Erik Prince or, worse, propaganda outfits like Project Veritas.

So where are all the PIs, gumshoe? Why can't I find them anywhere?

Phil Bronstein of the Center for Investigative Reporting has a theory, sort of, which is part of this delightful article he wrote for Alta Online:

Something's gone missing from the shadowy streets of San Francisco, a precious, revealing relic already mostly vanished long before the thieving suction of COVID-19. A piece of it is still with us, though who knows whether even that will survive.

Few have noticed its disappearance, which is a tragedy because it is a deliciously naughty, rich vein of life; the city and its rough-edged, romantic culture will suffer without it.

So, what is this about? What happened? There are clues: the curl of cigarette smoke, turned-up overcoat collars, steel revolvers, bare knuckles, rumors of a black bird swathed in jewels. But wait! That's just the fictional version.

Or is it?


The night at the Tosca bar—itself celebrated and faded—intended as a memorial after Fechh's unmysterious death in April 2019 due to heart problems, was also part of a long goodbye to a 40-year stretch of individualist, humanist, hyperintellectual, countercultural, antiauthoritarian lefty PIs. No guns (mostly), no ex-cops, no gold chains, no heavy hand (again, mostly).

The PIs of Fechh's time had gotten their early training not as FBI field agents or in police academies but at Vietnam War protests and in the humanities at university graduate schools. Their casual talk was as much about Sartre and Chaucer and life's metaphors as it was witness stalking and stolen garbage. But they were also tough and sometimes nearly fearless.

Bronstein uses the death of David Fechheimer—apparently something of an icon in the San Francisco PI scene—to explore what's happened to the other aging investigators in the city. It's a great character piece, and a bit of a detective story in its own way, as it examines the circumstances that let these vigilante men and women make their livings, and also the circumstances that have, well, turned the entire enterprise into corporate defense contracting.

The climate here is no longer congenial for the Fechhes, the Tinks, the Sutherlands, the Palladinos. Never mind Mr. Lucky. Tosca's memorial attendees "will never be in the same room together again," says Fechheimer's business partner Kirsten Lee Soares.

Time, technology, corporatization, the coronavirus, and some disregard for the human condition have all but ended a storied practice. We are losing another point of personal contact. I think we are all poorer for it.

If I squint down a Tenderloin alley or a private driveway on Russian Hill, I can almost see through the mist an "adroit" and "reserved" private eye of the past.

Now they're largely left to fiction, memory, and mystique.

I've always half-joked that I wanted to be a hard-boiled private eye, but after reading Bronstein's descriptions of all these different "intellectual, swashbuckling, anti-authority lefties," it almost makes me want to do it seriously. It can't be more foolish than being a writer, right?

Last Call for Gumshoes [Phil Bronstein / Alta Online]

Image: Public Domain via NeedPix