True Detectives

Real-Life Eyes Who’ve Written P.I. Novels

Sometimes it seems like every jasper that ever got a P.I. ticket decided to chuck it all to become a writer, perhaps dreaming of fame and riches (or perhaps, just not wanting to pee in a bottle while on a stakeout again), but the sad fact is that first-hand experience isn’t what made Dashiell Hammett rich and famous–it was that he was a great writer. 

I know it goes against conventional “wisdom,” but I’ve read enough less-than-impressive books by real-life private investigators (and police officers, federal agents, lawyers, crooks and criminals) to know that knowing your shit doesn’t mean you can effectively write about it.

THE GOLD STANDARD

  • Dashiell Hammett
    The Gold Standard. The main man, creator of The Continental Op, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora, etc. A former Pinkerton’s man. Somewhere there’s an article he wrote about some of his favorite cases while employed by the Pinks. Incidentally, he supposedly left the agency because he was uneasy with some of their union-busting tactics (possibly up to and including murder). But he’s the real deal; the guy who created the template for the gumshoe-turned-author…

EVERYONE ELSE…

  • Susan Andrews
    Florida P. I. Andrews fictionalizes of one of her own cases in Hard Impact, a novel which introduced female Florida P. I. Kelley Kavenaugh.
  • Robert E. Bailey
    A retired private investigator, a Vietnam vet, and an award-winning combat pistol shot, writes about Grand Rapids P.I. and family man Art Hardin.
  • Lise S. Baker
    Another eye, won the 1998 St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel Contest for The Losers’ Club which introduced San Francisco private eye Cal Brantley.
  • Elizabeth Breck
    This California girl has worked mainly in the field of insurance investigations, before heading back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in writing, summa cum laude, from the University of California San Diego. Her first P.I. novel, Anonymous, introducing Madison Kelly, came out in 2020.
  • William S. Burroughs
    I’m not sure that the loopy, reality-challenged novels and stories in which Clem Snide, Burroughs’ recurring detective character (and some say, Butrroughs’ surrogate), appeared truly qualifiy as P.I. fiction, but even weirder than the books is the fact that Burroughs himself apparently worked briefly as a private detective, before turning to writing.
  • Sean Chercover
    This lost Canadian was a P.I. ( and a video editor, scuba diver, nightclub magician, encyclopedia salesman, and truck driver) in various places before turning turned novelist and screenwriter, and creating Ray Dudgeon.
  • Colleen Collins
    A Colorado-based author, writing instructor and working private eye whose work includes several romance novels, as well as a couple of pretty useful guides to writing detective fiction: How To Write a Dick, co-authored with Shaun Kaufman, and How Do Private Eyes Do That? Her first private eye novel, The Zen Man, featuring P.I. Rick Levine and his significant other Laura is an affectionate update of Hammett’s The Thin Man.
  • O’Neil De Noux
    Besides contributing to this site, writes about New Orleans police detective Dino LaStanzas and private eye Lucien Caye.
  • Greg Fallis
    A licensed private investigator, Fallis writes short P.I. fiction (including the Shamus-nominated “Lord of Obstacles” and several other stories featuring P.I. Joop Wheeler) but is probably best known as the co-author, with Ruth Greenberg, of the classic Be Your Own Detective.
  • Joan Francis
    Author Francis is an honest-to-goodness real life private eye, with over fifteen years’ experience in the Los Angeles area, who writes about Southern California investigator Diana Hunter.
  • Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
    This former Miami P.I. writes the Lupe Solano series about a–get this!–Miami P. I. “I became a P.I. so I could write the books,” she says.
  • Joe Gores
    Author of the Dan Kearney & Associates (DKA) series and several other novels featuring P.I.s was a real-life San Francisco private investigator and repo man himself. His hero was Hammett.
  • Parnell Hall
    He calls himself the “world’s laziest writer”, because his character, Stanley Hastings, does exactly what Hall himself did for years, namely working as a New York City P.I. in name only, while getting accident victims to sign contracts with an ambulance-chasing lawyer. If Hall actually ran into as many loonies and murders as Hastings does, I can’t blame him for switching professions…
  • Nancy Baker Jacobs
    Writes the Devon MacDonald mysteries, is a former investigative journalist and private eye.
  • Jerry Kennealy
    Yet another San Francisco private eye turned writer (what is it? the water?), writes the Nick Polo series.
  • Chris Larsgaard
    Creator of private eye/heir hunter Nick Merchant, is a heir hunter himself, with more than a decade of experience on the job.
  • Elizabeth Pincus
    Writer of the Nell Fury books, is a former private eye.
  • Michael Stone
    In a short bio in the front of one of his Streeter novels, is referred to a a working P.I. In fact, the widely-acclaimed, Shamus Award-nominated author has been a working private detective for over 25 years. 
  • John Straley
    His series protagaonist is Cecil Younger, a quirky Alaskan private eye, but John himself worked as an investigator for the public defender’s office and later, as a freelancer.
  • Joyce Sullivan
    The real deal, a former private eye, who’s created Paulina Stewart, the heroine of an honest-to-God private eye novel from Harlequin, of all folks. Hey! Stop snickering, guys!
  • Don Winslow
    The man who gave us the terrific California Fire and Life, featuring fire inverstigator Jack Wade, and is also responsible for creating Neal Carey, a globe-trotting private eye who works for a rather murky New York organization, has worked as a movie theater manager and documentary film production assistant, but it is his experience as a private investigator, specializing in arson, that gets him included here.

And here’s one who hasn’t written a private eye novel… yet.

  • David Corbett
    So far, this former private eye has written several very well-received books, Done for a Dime and The Devil’s Redhead, but neither has featured a private eye. Bummer.
List compiled by Kevin Burton Smith, with  suggestions from Kevin Thornton and Steven Brown (a real-life private eye himself, and the author of 2002’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating).

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