An elegy for the dying breed of San Francisco private eyes

Originally published at:


“That’s the picture you’re going with?”


So Moses Wine in The Big Fix (1978) wasn’t completely fictional?

Aren’t Private Investigators like travel agents, people doing their own work rather than go to a professional?

Or maybe people got mesmerized by tv and movie PIs and were shocked it wasn’t that glamorous life in reality?


When a man’s profession is killed , he’s supposed to do something about it.


First fictional PI I thought of when I thought of a “counterculture detective”. Then I remembered the dark right-wing path his creator took:


Beautiful piece.

For me it evoked a dream of a legal-discovery parallel to the #DefundThePolice calls for investment in social workers as frontline responders to prevent police killing folks: Instead of a process driven by adversarial attorneys battling for a court-determined truth (including revealing hidden pressures on witnesses), flood the field with social workers trained in helping people solve their problems, equipped with the resources to do so, and the need for the crime or vulnerability to pressure for false testimony would evaporate. If we all had a Universal Basic degree of seen and heard and cared for (not to mention a Universal Basic Income supporting that), how many problems wouldn’t even manifest to begin with?

A flip side: I’d imagine that a genealogy / lineage chart for PI’s would somewhere have to include reference librarians and socialite knows-everybody columnists, like SF’s great Herb Caen.

There’s another modern descendant of the lost art of PIs: (Public) Records Requestors.

Some time back I was asked to provide database-development technical assistance to a firm in a musty, cavernous yet sparsely-occupied downtown San Francisco office.

The core business seemed straightforward: make it easy for people to request documents like birth certificates over the internet; the company would do the legwork and supply digital files, for a fee. In some cases, like oft-requested celebrities’ records, the firm retained the digital copies so could sell them online over and over again without having to do any legwork, and with sufficient automation to not even need any human-in-the-loop for many transactions. In most jurisdictions, this was legal or laws hadn’t been updated to fully regulate it, and my potential client appeared to have some protections to verify their customer’s compliance with restrictions on who had access to these records.

As part of my assessment work in my first client visit, to map out the business process while bidding on the job, I took on one of the customer inquiries myself, when they were short staffed on available contractors / “couriers”: a public records request of a local higher-ed school’s public-private partnership office. It seemed simple: a phone call and showing up in the office to pick up records. Simple expediting of what otherwise would be tied up in administrative red tape. Close to my commute route. Easy-peasy, right?

As I went through the steps, and then was refused the data in person, it became clearer what was going on: this was likely an inquiry on behalf of a competitor of a company partnering with the college, trying to steal the company’s IP. The folks I was considering working for were acting as intermediaries to cover up the true requestor, hoping to take advantage of gaps in the system or human errors to extract data they might not legally be entitled to; if I were willing to lie, I might have been able to get the information.

Despite my own enjoyable experience in technology journalism, at times finding and publishing confidential information that someone didn’t want shared, I declined to take on that client. For me this crossed the line from public service to privateering.


Beautiful piece, but the industry is growing every year. Especially in the big three states: Florida, Texas, and California.

Each state has their association: FALI, TALI, and CALI - it stands for the Association of Licensed Investigators.

We own a marketing agency for Private Investigators (investigator marketing) creative name, I know. And while I do agree that the “Columbus or Magnum PIs” of the industry are dying, the profession is shifting and evolving.

It’s a lot more technological nowadays. Even then, most of the big names you hear today - Brian Willingham, Adam Visnic, Hal Humphreys, or Mike Spencer (in the Bay Area) are all highly specialized.

The “general PI” is slowly being pushed out by major corporate houses, but the specialists charge a good $150+ per hour, and people line up to wait for their turn.

I love the piece, but they’re still around, and they’re still growing :slight_smile:


No-Fault divorce killed a lot of their business decades ago. In several states, divorce required a cause. So one would hire PIs for evidence of adultery. Nowadays, causes of action for “irreconcilable differences” and separation agreements obviate the need for a lot of what they do,

Of course there is still insurance fraud, which has skyrocketed in the last 30 years. But that is not as fun for a detective story writer.


I tried to find a better image that was public domain/creative commons available! I swear I tried!


I imagine a lot of PI work now is done on a computer or at city hall, sorting through public records and other databases. And probably as an aide to help jealous spouses, or shady lawyers who want dirt to get the plaintiffs off their clients’ backs. I can’t think of who else would be spending the money on one…


I’ve read/seen a few. But they usually work on a murder by the end.

Hah! That did occur to me. Ah well, Section 230 to the rescue!

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Insurance companies hire PIs on a regular basis when they suspect someone is claiming false or exaggerated injuries. Taking videos of people allegedly too injured to work unloading groceries or doing yard work. Or checking their social media for claimants partying up or on vacation.


Businesses hire them if they suspect someone is fiddling with their markets or other frauds.


So a lot less sneaking around with dangerous dames in red dresses, but about the same amount of whiskey drinking.

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The Russian Mafia is in deep with insurance fraud as a regular racket, so maybe not.

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