GUMSHOE: Reflections in a Private Eye by Josiah Thompson
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GUMSHOE: Reflections in a Private Eye

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A true-crime classic: from a philosophy professor/author turned sleuth, the best book ever written about the life of the private eye. In 1976, in his early 40s, Thompson (Six Seconds in Dallas, 1967; Kierkegaard, 1973), on sabbatical from Haverford College, signed on as an apprentice with a top S.F. detective agency. Fed up with academia (""I'd become an idle onlooker, gradually turning older, wearier, deader""), he threw himself into his new work, finding that there was ""something more fundamental, more 'gritty' about it. . .in this business, unlike teaching or writing, failure and success were obvious."" He tastes both during the four years (19761980) and several complex, often dangerous cases chronicled here in gripping detail, among them: trailing violent unionists; spying on a wayward wife; retrieving 30 grand stashed away in an attic by a drug dealer; flying to India to snatch a child from her sadistic dad. In addition to procedural lessons gleaned--minutiae of surveillance, calming riled cops, getting doormen to talk--each case presents philosophic revelations: work for a drug lawyer, for example, leads Thompson to realize that ""Criminality wasn't the problem; power was. The world of power and love: they stand one against the other. To be a cogent actor in that domain requires craft and guile."" And thus it is that meditations on Sam Spade--the archetypal crafty P.I.--offer stations by which Thompson checks his Pilgrim's Progress into the heart of sleuthing. For, he comes to realize, craft and guile exact a heavy toll: a ""psychic obstacle that blocks one's entry into the world of love."" As his marriage strains under stress from his job and past infidelities, as he adopts evermore cunning ways--culminating in a kidnapping--to achieve his ends, Thompson comes to understand why Hammett, at the end of The Maltese Falcon, ""makes Spade 'shiver' as he looks down the cold barrel of his future."" Thompson--and his marriage--have survived in this world of moral relativism; today he's a top-flight P.I. working out of S.F. That's no surprise, since his embracing of the sleuth's world, bleak yet ever novel, sustains this lengthy memoir. Thompson's no dazzling stylist--his prose does the job, nothing more--but his bone-honest, intensely self-examining account reveals the P.I.'s world like none before.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1988
Publisher: Little, Brown