Created by Fred Zackel
“Playing detective is like being a gravedigger. There’s always dirt to be dug up, people willing to pay to have it dug up. But what kind of a man wants to spend his life scrounging for human rot six feet underground?”
— Brennen in Cocaine and Blue Eyes
Actually, it’s a little bit of both.
He’s recently out of a job and out of a marriage. His private investigator’s ticket is about to die, and he’s collecting unemployment. And he feels he’s gotten what he deserves. He was cheating on his wife and he doesn’t seem too upset that he was canned from Pacific-Continental Investigations (Pac-Con) either. After all, he just wandered into the job after a stint as an MP. With a wife and two kids to support, he just “grabbed the first job (he) could get.”
Likewise, in Cocaine and Blue Eyes, which has become something of a lost classic of the genre, not to mention a dead-on dissection of seventies culture, he stumbles into a case, and takes it on because he has nothing better to do, suggesting at one point, and then later confessing that he’s “tired of being poor.”
It’s certainly not because he feels he’s got any natural talent for detective work: “As if (solving cases) had anything to do with ability, talent, good detective work. I got lucky…I was grateful. Only the lucky solve cases.”
Me? I think this dick doth protest too much.
Cocaine is an excellent book, gathering praise from Time, the Boston Globe and blurbed by Ross Macdonald himself, who had become something of a mentor to the young author. “Powerful…I recommend it with pleasure.”
And I liked it too. In fact, I thought it was a real Macdonaldesque toot for the snoot (we’re talking 70s here). I only regret I haven’t been able to dig up the sequel, Cinderella After Midnight (1980). Brennen’s an interesting character: brooding and cynical, a curmuudgeon griping his way through his investigations.
In 1983, Cocaine and Blue Eyes was even made into a television movie, intended as a pilot. It boasted (if that’s the word) O.J. Simpson as Brennen, which really took me for a loop. Was Brennen black? Am I that sloppy a reader or am I going colour blind in my old age? I rushed to the bookshelf and double-checked.
Turns out I wasn’t mistaken. Brennen was born poor, white and Irish in the Mission District of San Francisco. The film didn’t impress the critics as much as the novel upon which it was based. Still, I eagerly stayed up late one night to watch the flick. Suffice it to say that when it was all over I, too, was rather underwhelmed.
The author, Fred Zackel, once admitted on Rara-Avis:
“We spent a year negotiating the deal. During the entire time my wife and my agent refused to tell me who was the other party; they both knew I’d be upset. I wanted an actor to play the part. I was very upset. We visited the set two, maybe three times. We have photographs with him, arms around each other, grinning at the camera. (My son now thinks they’re hysterical.) For years, whenever the movie was mentioned, friends would try cheering me up, ‘Well, at least the checks cleared.’ Very sympathetic. These days, well, no one talks much about it.”
Especially after O.J. was charged with murder. After that, the flick briefly became a staple of late night television, before disappearing from sight for years and years.
In 2006, Point Blank reprinted Cocaine and Blue Eyes. No word yet on whether they’ll eventually do Cinderella After Midnight, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Besides the Brennen books, he’s responsible for Murder in Wakiki, a novel which sparked the author’s fascination with Hawaiian culture. He’s also written a few P.I. standalones, including Tough Town Cold City (2010), which introduced another San Francisco private eye, Frank Pasnow, and The Girl Under the Bridge (2020), with muckruking journalist Frank Corso. Zackel’s short story collections include The Bicycles Were Gravestones and Creepier Than a Whorehouse Kiss.
- “Fred Zackel’s first novel reminds me of the young Dashiell Hammett’s work, not because it is an imitation, but because it is not. It is a powerful and original book made from the lives and language of the people who live in San Francisco today.”
— Ross Macdonald (January 1978)
- “A spectrum of sex, aging flower children, mafia money, houseboat life in Sausalito, booze, barbituates, bitterness, incest and greed, as nerve-rattling as a full-throttle auto chase!”
- Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Cinderella After Midnight (1980) | Buy this book
- COCAINE AND BLUE EYES | Buy this DVD
(1983, TV movie, unsold pilot)
Based on the novel by Fred Zackel
Teleplay by Kendell J. Blair
Directed by E.W. Swackmeyer
Produced by Don Mark
Executive Producer: O.J. Simpson
Starring O.J. Simpson as MICHAEL BRENNEN
Also starring Cliff Gorman, Candy Clark, Eugene Roche, Maureen Anderman, Cindy Pickett, Tracy Reed, Keye Luke
- Cocaine and Blue Eyes
Review by Ann Snuggs March 2011, The Noir Journal)
- Have You Ever Thought About Doing Something Serious… Like Detective Fiction?
Fred on his close encounter with Ross Macdonald, and how it changed his life (April 1999, January Magazine)