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In the local community of private investigators there are former cops, federal agents, reporters, teachers — and even a farmer. While some say they were attracted to the noir world brought to life by detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, others came to the profession by chance. David Fechheimer was a graduate student at San Francisco State University in the early 1960s when he first came across a Hammett novel. Intrigued by the Sam Spade persona, he called up the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (where Hammett also once worked) and asked if someone with no experience — and a beard — could get hired. He later joined renowned San Francisco PI Hal Lipset and became his partner in the late 1960s. An expert on Hammett, Fechheimer wrote an article examining the author’s career in 1975 for the now defunct City Magazine. At the time, not much was known about Hammett, as he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period, and libraries had removed his books from their shelves. In writing the piece, Fechheimer put his investigative skills to use to track down and interview Hammett’s former wife, who had been purported to be dead by Hammett’s longtime lover, playwright Lillian Hellman. Investigator Jack Palladino got into the detective business when one of his college professors asked him if he wanted to take an undercover assignment for Lipset. In 1972 Palladino posed as a prisoner at a facility in Minneola, N.Y. Another PI, Sandra Sutherland, was already undercover in the women’s section of the prison. Their grand jury testimony helped convict guards of smuggling drugs and abusing prisoners. The two subsequently married and opened their own agency, Palladino & Sutherland, in 1976. Joshua “Tink” Thompson was a philosophy professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania when he got involved in the detective scene. He had taken a sabbatical in California to work on a book about Friedrich Nietzsche when he met Lipset and Fechheimer, who hired him to interview people around the Oakland docks for $5 an hour. “I loved it so much I couldn’t go back,” Thompson said. Barry Simon was building race-car engines in an auto shop when an attorney asked him to track down some witnesses. Pamela Pierce was an onion farmer in Hawaii before moving to San Francisco and getting a job with Fechheimer. And Jacqueline Tully was a film critic with the Arizona Daily Star and then the San Francisco Examiner before she began working with Thompson. She later worked for Palladino & Sutherland and then teamed with Nancy Pemberton, a former criminal defense lawyer. Pemberton, who handles capital cases, and Tully have their own agencies now. The majority of detectives, however, began their careers in law enforcement and found the PI business was a natural progression. Rick Smith, who founded Cannon Street Inc. with another former FBI agent, said about 50 percent of retired agents either open their own detective agency or contract with an existing outfit. No matter how they came into the profession, local gumshoes say it is an extraordinary way to make a living. Every case involves “some human failing where something has gone wrong,” Tully said. “Passion that causes murder, power, greed, sex — they tend to repeat themselves, but in different forms. That’s what it’s all about. How could it not be interesting?”

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