Michael Brennen

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

Middle-aged San Francisco slacker P.I. MICHAEL BRENNEN may think he’s “getting too old for this shit,” but at thirty, he’s either prematurely curmudgeonly or he is, indeed, involved in some bad shit.

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, Fred Zackel‘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, The Girl Under the Bridge (2020), with muckruking journalist Frank Corso, and Drunk in Blood (2021), featuring Cricket West, a Las Vegas private eye. 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!”
    — Time



    (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


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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