Famous–or Infamous–Real-Life Eyes
Strange but true! The private eye existed in fiction before he (or she) ever existed in real life! Still, these are a few of the real-life eyes you may have heard of. They weren’t all saints, mind you, and more than a few of them may have padded their CVs…
- François Eugène Vidocq
History’s first recorded real-life private detective.
- Allan Pinkerton
The man who put the “eye” in “private eye.” Also one of the first to write P.I. fiction… oh, sorry… “Memoirs.” Founded The Pinkerton Detective Agency, of course, whose later involvement in union-busting and anti-labor activities must have had the former Scotsman (who’d fled the old country because of his progressive politics) to spin in his grave.
- Wyatt Earp
Brave, courageous and bold, or just a thug for hire? Cleaned up a town à la Red Harvest under decidedly murky circumstances. Later became–get this–a real P.I.
- Fred J. Dodge
Legendary Wells Fargo man, he worked for them for over fifty years, much of it undercover, rounding up everything from rustlers to train robbers.
- Charlie Siringo
The original cowboy detective. He worked for the Pinkertons. Whoopie ti-yi-yay, motherfuckers.
- Dashiell Hammett
It doesn’t get much realer than this. Hammett worked for the Pinkertons, on and off, for about seven years, and then used those experiences to create two of the all-time greatest private eyes of all time, The Continental Op and Sam Spade. you might have heard of him…
- Harry Raymond
A career police officer, Raymond was a detective for the LAPD and a special investigator for the LA District Attorney’s office, and even enjoyed brief runs as police chief of both San Diego and Venice, but he’s most famous for his work as a private investigator for a Los Angeles political group, Citizens Independent Vice Investigating Committee. Looking into malfeasance in the then-current administration of Mayor Frank Shaw and Chief James Davis’ notoriously corrupt LAPD of the 1930s, he must have touched a nerve, because in January 1938, Harry’s brand new Chrysler exploded–with Harry in it. He sustained near-fatal injuries, but he survived, and doggedly continued his investigations, eventually unearthing enough evidence to prove that corruption permeated both the city administration and the LAPD. Eventually, the mayor was recalled, an LAPD captain was convicted of the bombing, and several members of a secret “spy squad” that had Raymond under surveillance lost their jobs. Supposedly this all ushered in a new era for the City of Angels. Yeah, sure…
- Jay J. Armes
Part-P.I., part-huckster, full-time showman. Born Julian Armas, this El Paso-born investigator became, as he liked to bill himself, “the world’s most successful private eye,” despite (?) having lost both his hands at the age of eleven. He generated a lot of buzz in the seventies and eighties, was was generally considered, at least according to him, as one of the very best, receiving awards and recognition as “the man who has made the greatest contribution to the investigative profession.” His clients have included Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, whose son, Christian, Armes rescued from kidnappers. Supposedly he never lost a case, and often succeeded where the FBI and CIA have failed, and all that, despite losing both hands hands as a child. He went on to inspire books, movies and even a line of toys. Amazing? Yes, just ask him.
- Milo Speriglio
A veteran Los Angeles private investigator who ended up running the Nick Harris Detective Agency in Los Angeles, one of the oldest detective agencies in the country, and among the tens of thousands of cases he worked, he gained notoriety for his star-studded investigations into the deaths of George Reeves, Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.
- Jules Kroll
The Allan Pinkerton of his era? Kroll founded Kroll, Inc., and is credited with founding the modern corporate investigations industry in 1972. The firm was later sold to Marsh & McLennan Companies for $1.9 billion. Kroll then founded K2 Intelligence, which continues the family’s work in asset recovery, due diligence, litigation support, and a range of corporate investigations.
- David “Fetch” Fechheimer
The New York Times called him an “adroit but reserved Sam Spade” in his 2019 obit, relating how the former English professor was “spurred overnight by the fictional gumshoe Sam Spade to switch careers and become one of the nation’s leading private investigators,” while noting that the San Francisco-based detective was “inconspicuous compared with many of his colleagues and most of his clients. He also also worked pro-bono for the Innocence Project. The Times also noted that “with a beard, shaggy gray hair and rimless granny glasses, he looked more like Jerry Garcia than Humphrey Bogart,” but his obsession with Hammett, according to Nathan Ward, “made future Hammett scholarship possible.”
- Anthony Pellicano
A notorious high-profile Hollywood fixer whose celebrity clients (Tom Cruise!) were willing to pay him big bucks for solving their problems (think Ray Donovan), but who was subsequently convicted and carted off to the federal hoosegow for, among other things, possession of explosives, firearms and homemade grenades, racketeering, wiretapping, wire fraud, and computer fraud. Some of his celebrity clients, as well as police officers and attorneys, were also convicted of crimes associated with his illegal activities. Pellicano was released on March 22, 2019.
- Jack Palladino & Sandra Sutherland
In 1977 this married couple founded the San Francisco detective agency Palladino & Sutherland, and soon established a reputation reputation for scandal-busting and “bare-knuckle tactics,” according to The New York Times. Over their long career, the firm specialized in trial preparation and gathering evidence for defense attorneys. Their client list included, among others, Bill Clinton, John DeLorean, Courtney Love, R. Kelly. the Hell’s Angels, the Black Panthers, the Teamsters, Kevin Costner, Don Johnson, Harvey Weinstein, Robin Williams, Huey P. Newton and Snoop Dogg. Jack died at the age of 1976 from head injuries sustained while trying to gather video evidence of a robbery in front of his San Francisco home.
- Christopher Steele
A veteran of MI6, with expertise in Russia, this British private eye helped run a private intelligence agency in London called Orbis Business Intelligence, most famous for its background investigation into Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign (initiated originally by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative web site), which uncovered what seemed to be treasonous behavior by Trump and his campaign. The rest (so far) is history…
- Arthur Brand
A Dutch art crime investigator, occasionally referred to as “the world’s greatest art detective” and the “Indiana Jones of the art world.” He’s assisted in the recovery of over two stolen or “disappeared” works of art by Salvador Dali, Tamara de Lempicka and Picasso’s Buste de Femme.
- True Detectives
Non-fiction by Real Life Eyes
- True Detectives
P.I. Novels by Real-Life Eyes
- The Modern Detective: Inside The Secret World Of Private Investigators
Real-life private eye Tyler Maroney, the author of The Modern Detective, on how corporate intelligence is reshaping the world, for better and worse. (September 2020, CrimeReads)
- “Snoop Dreams: Why Private Eyes Are Everywhere Now”
Patrick Radden Keefe on how private investigation has become an industry (October 5, 2020, The New Yorker)
Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.