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Private Eye’s View of the TV Gumshoe

It was about 10 p.m. when I called Cable News Network in Washington.

I thought it would probably be too late to catch him, but it wasn’t. I fought my way through an operator and a producer and finally heard him on the line. I spoke first.

“Tink Thompson?”

“Yeah.”

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I could tell from the sound of his voice that he had a big flat face and a high-bridged, fleshy nose that looked as hard as the prow of a cruiser. He had lidless eyes, drooping jowls, the shoulders of a blacksmith and the short legs of a chimpanzee. He was in an office, not small, not large, with a neat, professional look. You can tell a lot from a man’s voice.

“Dashiell Hammett was the only mystery writer who got it right about private eyes,” said free-lance detective Josiah (Tink) Thompson, author of “Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye.”

If that were true, I had made a terrible mistake by plagiarizing Raymond Chandler at the beginning of this column instead of Hammett, so terrible that I felt as if I’d been buried at sea in a barrel of concrete.

I began to realize I had initially misread Thompson, that his jaw was as long and bony as Sam Spade’s in “The Maltese Falcon,” his chin a jutting “V” under the more flexible “V” of his mouth. As he spoke, low and hoarse and passionate, it became increasingly obvious that his nostrils curved back to make another “V,” that his yellow-gray eyes were horizontal and, most of all, that I was butchering Hammett’s writing as much as I did Chandler’s.

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If Hammett got it right about the private eye, TV gets it wrong, said Thompson, an $85-an-hour San Francisco private eye who had just spilled his guts about his new book on the cable network’s “Larry King Live” when I reached him by phone.

Unlike TV gumshoes, Hammett’s Spade didn’t carry a gun in “The Maltese Falcon,” nor does Thompson, a former philosophy professor who became a private eye in 1976. (That does sound like a TV series.)

No gun ? I glared at the phone between tightened lids, thinking about “Six Seconds in Dallas,” Thompson’s 1967 book claiming that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have killed President Kennedy alone.

“I hate guns; I fear ‘em,” Thompson said through his teeth. “If you ever have to use a gun, that’s not a success, that’s a failure. That’s an indication of your colossal stupidity. Anybody who has had to use a gun would have made about a dozen mistakes. It’s safer not to carry a gun.”

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Not only that, but Thompson regards using a gun as an immoral act. “It means dropping to a level of coercion,” he said. “I didn’t stop being a philosophy professor to become sub-human.”

Yeah, but if not firearms, surely Thompson uses his dukes when he has to. Surely he knows how to punch a man senseless, so that he’s twisted by pain and chagrin.

He spoke irritably. “I’m 53 years old, man. I’m 5-8 and 150 pounds. I use my mouth and my head, not my fists.”

There’s one even more fundamental difference separating TV private eyes and Tink Thompson. TV private eyes neatly wrap up their cases in an hour, between the opening and ending commercials. “But life doesn’t wrap in an hour,” said Thompson, for whom ambiguity is a constant companion in all his cases. There are days when he doesn’t make any more yardage than an angleworm in a bait can, and some cases take years to complete.

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I stared at the phone in dead silence.

“What happens in the English detective novel is that you get a detective who is real smart,” Thompson said. “He sees some clue--the expression of a character’s face or a hair where it shouldn’t be--and he’s so smart that he can follow that clue and unravel the fantasy. Finally, when truth is revealed, the real hero is human reason. But Hammett was the first one to see that’s all wrong. The masterpiece of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is that you don’t go from fiction to truth. By the end of the book, you don’t know what the truth is.”

Obviously, Thompson’s career isn’t destined for TV. No gun, no brawn. He doesn’t have a police lieutenant pal who reluctantly feeds him inside information. Nor does he wear a snap-brim hat or a tie that’s askew.

“I hate neckties,” he growled.

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One thing was puzzling me. What was a guy with a fancy pedigree like Thompson’s doing in a racket like this?”

“I was tired of words,” he said. “And my marriage was going through a turbulent period and I wanted out of that earlier life.”

While having dinner with internationally known private eye Harold K. Lipset, he asked for a job on a lark, and the rest is gumshoe history. Thompson moved up the ladder from being a $5-an-hour apprentice, to an “operative” to a full-fledged detective with an “operative” of his own (a former movie critic) and assignments ranging from recovering $30,000 in a drug case to retrieving a kidnaped child from India.

And now, Thompson said, there was one thing he wanted to know, one thing he couldn’t get straight in his mind, one thing that baffled him. Why is private-detective fiction so prominent in our culture? Why are private eyes so central to books, movies and TV?

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“I’m damned if I know why,” I said.

Thompson was silent.

More ambiguity.

I hung up the phone and stared ahead at nothing.

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