More Private Eye Stories from A Real-Life P.I.
By Colleen Collins
I’m a real-life P.I. who loves reading stories featuring my fictional counterparts. Seven years ago, I wrote the article “Props & Peeves! Private Eye Stories from a Real-Life P.I.” for the Thrilling Detective. At the time, I’d twice been a judge for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Awards; since then I’ve been invited to judge six more times, making it a grand total of eight. So I’ve read a lot of great stories about private eyes working those mean streets.
But sometimes I read things, to paraphrase Philip Marlowe, that are as empty of plausibility as a scarecrow’s pockets. Like a P.I.-character who blithely commits felonies as if crossing the legal line is no big deal. Not true. In the real world of private investigators, it’s a very big deal, the kind that could strip a P.I. of her license and professional reputation. Another plausibility sinkhole: a P.I. behaving like Bogart’s Sam Spade, as if the writer’s sole research was binge-watching the movie The Maltese Falcon.
Failing to understand the character’s world, or using worn-thin clichés, spotlight a writer’s laziness. As I said in Pet Peeves Part I, there are ways to flesh-out private eye characters’ investigative techniques, as well as the legalities that affect their work, so that the P.I.-character comes across as credible. At the end of this article is a list of research resources on private investigations, including books, magazines, and more.
Now let’s look at some P.I.-fiction bloopers…
Below are five flubs I’ve read in recent private eye tales. I’ve altered some story attributes so authors, titles, characters, etc. aren’t identifiable.
Laws What Laws? Here We Go Again…
Pet Peeve #1 is a repeat offender. Time to mention it again because some writers seem determined to turn their fictional P.I. into a lawbreaking badass. If that’s the character you want to write, fine. But don’t make the P.I. a legal dumb-dumb. In real life, licensed P.I.s understand the basic laws that affect their investigative specialization.
If a P.I. doesn’t know what law/s could affect a particular investigation, he might contact an attorney, look up the statute, or check with his network of professional private investigators. In other words, P.I.s take care to not break laws. Think Anthony Pellicano, the former high-profile Los Angeles P.I. to the stars. He was a lawbreaking badass, and you better believe he knew what laws he was breaking, which included wiretapping and racketeering. That’s why he spent years in federal prison.
How can a writer check legalities? Google your legal question, ask a lawyer or paralegal, contact your state professional private investigator organization, or ask a reference librarian at a public or law library.
Bending Reality to Serve the Story
“You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality.” — Stephen King
I just read a story where a law firm didn’t want to use their internal investigators to do “dirty jobs” that involved one of their investigators committing misdemeanors and felonies. Instead, they’d hire a freelance (independent contractor) P.I. to break the law for them. The reasoning was that a freelancer wouldn’t get the law firm into trouble, such as it being sued.
This is a variation of “Laws What Laws?”(see #1, above) where a writer makes up legal stuff to fit a story (bends reality to serve the fiction). Instead the writer should be researching the legalities to make the premise plausible (bending the fiction to serve reality).
Here’s the reality: A law firm is responsible for the torts and crimes of any P.I. whose services they retain, be it one of their internal investigators or an outside contractor, because the P.I.’s tasks are committed during the scope and course of the P.I.’s work for the law firm. The law calls this vicarious liability. A law firm is responsible for what a P.I.-contractor does because of the contractual relationship between that P.I. and law firm. If a freelance P.I. conducts any “dirty work,” then the employer is seen to do it as well.
Again, nothing wrong if a writer wants to create a lawbreaking, badass P.I.-character. What’s key is that the fictional P.I. knows he’s committing a crime, but is willing to take that risk for a compelling reason (for example, a child’s life is at stake). That choice adds complexity and tension to the story versus a P.I. blithely committing a felony, which makes the sleuth look clueless.
Call 911, Stupid
I’ve read scenes where a seasoned, skilled P.I. stumbles upon a crime scene where there’s a dead body, and the first thing the P.I. does is grab her smartphone and call or text a buddy, type a P.I.ece of information about the scene for her own notes (such as a license plate number), or the biggest no-no of all, take it upon herself to handle, test, and/or collect evidence. Let’s talk common sense here. The first thing that P.I. should do is call 911.
In real life, a private investigator would call on police to handle a major crime scene, such as a murder or arson. If the P.I. touches anything in that crime scene, he could end up being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence.
If a P.I. stumbles upon a person who’s been wounded/hurt, she would first assess the victim’s medical condition, and then call 911.
Let’s go back to a writer wanting their P.I. character to be a badass who stumbles on a dead body and has solid, compelling motivation for looking in that dead person’s suit pocket. Let that P.I. character be on top of his game: he always carries a pair of latex gloves in his glove compartment. Or a female P.I. might carry a pair in her purse. Resorting to a cell phone camera is not a bad idea, either. It preserves the scene, and it is legal.
Lawyer’s Office? Lawyer’s Turf
I’ve read this scenario in multiple private eye tales: P.I. goes to a meeting in lawyer’s office to learn about a new case and to meet the lawyer’s client (usually a defendant in a criminal case). Immediately, the P.I. takes over the meeting, at times becoming aggressive with the client, demanding to know what the client said and/or did at a crime scene. Meanwhile, the defense lawyer sits passively nearby, not saying a word.
I’ve never met a milquetoast criminal lawyer. Especially on their turf.
Are Writers Copying Other Writers’ Lawyer-PI Meeting Scenes?
After reading similar P.I.-As-Top-Dog-In-Lawyer’s-Office-Meeting scenes, I wondered if some writers have read such scenes in others’ private eye stories, so they copy that set-up as if it’s realistic. Nope. It’s not. Copying a scenario without double-checking accuracy is lazy writing. You might as well put your P.I.-character in a trench coat, mumbling like Bogie, and carrying a sap. You know, the stuff clichés are made of.
Why a P.I. Wouldn’t Take Control
Typically, a P.I. has already discussed the case with the attorney beforehand. Sometimes, the P.I. has recommended this particular client to the lawyer, which my P.I. partner and I have done, but we still let the attorney guide the meeting because if the P.I. takes over, problems can occur:
- The P.I. might lead the client to have unreal legal expectations.
- The P.I. could propose an unwanted (by the lawyer) course of legal strategy, or the investigator might foreclose the exploration of a viable legal or factual defense.
- It is unethical for a lawyer to practice law with someone who is not a lawyer, a gray area that the P.I. could step into if he/she’s trying to run the meeting.
- A client might lose respect for the lawyer if the P.I. is coming across as the one in charge. And the last thing a lawyer wants to lose is a client’s respect.
Enough With the Cop Buddy Who Spills the Beans
This over-used scenario has almost reached mythical status: Private eye needs inside dirt on a case, so she calls her cop-buddy who willingly spills confidential info on an open police case.
The reality: If a law enforcement officer improperly advances information (confidential tips, insider information, access to a government database) to a P.I. and gets caught, that officer risks his/her career and reputation. How many police officers do you think are willing to risk their careers for a P.I.-pal?
However, P.I.s and law enforcement might share a one-time exchange of professional exchange. For example, I once contacted a sheriff and said a subject in his jurisdiction had a criminal history, and I’d discovered additional foul play by this same subject, and would he be interested in running a search in the government database NCIC (National Crime Information Center) as it benefited his case, too. He agreed, and the database results aided both of our cases.
Peeves aside, there are also writers who nail the P.I. character and profession in their stories.
Props to Writers Who Get It Right
Let’s look at a few writers who’ve nailed their fictional P.I.’s world and investigative methods.
- Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski
Most real-life P.I.s specialize in one or more specializations, a few being domestic investigations, personal injury, skip tracing (locating a person’s whereabouts), computer forensics, pet investigations, legal investigations, and so on.
Sara Paretsky is best known for her female private eye character V.I. Warshawski, who has the chops of a legal investigator. Paretsky crafted a realistic background for Warshawski: Before becoming a P.I., Warshawski attended law school and worked as a public defender, which attest to her understanding and passion for the law. She works independently and also for attorneys, which is not uncommon for legal investigators. In public posts, Paretsky has mentioned, but not named, a real-life female P.I. who has helped Paretsky flesh out a three-dimensional Warshawski.
- Don Winslow’s Neal Carrey & Boone Daniels
Don Winslow writes both fiction and nonfiction. He brings his background as a private investigator to P.I. characters Neal Carrey and cop-turned-detective Boone Daniels. The Red Wing Public Library listed Winslow’s “Dawn Patrol,” with P.I. Boone Daniels, as one of the twenty-five great private eye novels.
- Sean Chercover’s Ray Dudgeon
Chercover no longer writes the P.I. Ray Dudgeon series, which were top-notch tales. No surprise as Chercover is also a former private investigator.
Want to learn more about the real world of private investigations, cold cases, security and more? Check out the below links (listed in alphabetical order):
- Defrosting Cold Cases
A resource blog about cold cases, authored by former human rights lawyer, cold case blogger, and crime fiction author Alice de Sturler.
- Diligentia Group
Site by P.I. Brian Willingham, CFE, president of Diligentia Group. Informative articles about background, fraud, and legal investigations.
- Guns, Gams, & Gumshoes
My P.I.-partner’s and my website. Lots of tips for writers crafting sleuth characters. We’ve also written a nonfiction book, based on our years teaching workshops to writers crafting stories with sleuths and private eyes: How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths.
- Kevin’s Security Scrapbook: Spy News From New York
A blog by Kevin D. Murray, an independent security consultant who specializes in surveillance detection, security, and privacy problems.
- Private Eye Confidential
The views and musings of California P.I. Mike Spenser. He’s also written a memoir about his life as a private eye in Private Eye Confidential: Stories from a Real P.I..
- Pursuit Magazine
A free online magazine managed by a real-life husband-and-wife private-eye team. Articles by P.I.s and others on topics ranging from case stories, legalities, investigative tips, and more.