Professor Discovers Niche as a Private Eye

Associated Press

Prof. Josiah Thompson is an expert on such noted philosophers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche--and Sam Spade.

Spade? What in the name of Humphrey Bogart is going on here? A career change, that’s what.

In 1976, Thompson, driven by a “thirst for experience,” left his tenured position as professor of philosophy at Haverford College--a prestigious Quaker school in Pennsylvania--came to San Francisco and became a private detective.

He couldn’t have picked a better city in which to set up shop.


San Francisco’s hills are steeped in the lore of Dashiell Hammett and his legendary sleuth, Sam Spade, the “blond Satan” whose hair darkened when brought to the screen by Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

There’s even a bronze plaque on a San Francisco street, recalling a murder that took place only in Hammett’s mind: “On approximately this spot Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”

Thompson, whose previous writings were mostly limited to the academic world, has recounted his metamorphosis in a book appropriately called “Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye” (Little, Brown, $17.95).

He was born 53 years ago in East Liverpool, Ohio, where his father sold dishes. During World War I, his father took a pair of field glasses from a dead German and gave them to the youngster.


Under Fire in Lebanon

Thompson, whose nickname is Tink, still uses the glasses on cases. He keeps them hanging over his desk and has used them on stakeouts.

Even though slightly built, he played halfback in high school, closing his eyes “on every play.” Later, he was under fire in Lebanon as an ensign with a Navy underwater demolition team, the elite frogmen.

Why did he become a professor in the first place, going from football bruises and the sound of warfare to the safety of a college campus?

“I had plenty of money when I got out of the Navy, with demolition and combat pay,” he said. “I was a good student in high school so I went to Oxford and from there took the line of least resistance.”

When that line became a cul-de-sac, he took a sabbatical and grabbed a job with an established detective agency in San Francisco.

During his apprenticeship and as his own boss, Thompson has worked on such headline cases as the defense of Black Panther Huey Newton on assault and murder charges, and the defense of William and Emily Harris in the Patty Hearst case.

There were also other less publicized capers, ranging from recovering $30,000 from under the floorboards of an attic in a drug case to retrieving a kidnaped child from India.


Never Carries a Gun

Thompson’s wife, Nancy, sells real estate. They have two adult daughters and a son who plays soccer in college. Thompson never carries a gun and he thinks the most dangerous part of his job is “mistaken identity.”

“I was taken for a spy on a case in Morocco,” he said. “And one time in Canada, while working on a drug case, word got around that a hit man was being brought in. When people heard I was from California, some of them thought I was the guy. The bars would clear when I came in.”

While honing his skills as a gumshoe, Thompson has become fascinated by Hammett and Spade, so much so that on one case he took the time to interview some of Hammett’s relatives.

Hammett, through Spade, was a bit of a philosopher, he said.

“In order to love, one must put off hardness and shiftiness,” Thompson said. “The ability to lie effectively, to appear different than one really is, all the disguises essential in the world of power, become, in the world of love, temptations, artful excuses to avoid the nakedness love requires, to avoid love.”

Hammett knew this, he said.

“That’s why in the last line of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ he makes Spade ‘shiver’ as he looks down the cold barrel of his future.”