Writing detectives: the private detective of the 21st century
Gone was yesterday’s private investigator, the lone lone ranger who straightened out mistakes single-handedly, leaving the world a better place as he disappeared down those rough, dusty streets into another case. Don’t get me wrong, 21st century IP works only part of the time, but I’d be a fool if it worked that way twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, especially with the network of other IPs, resources, and data to those to turn to (for example, via the Internet).
Let’s start by dusting off some of the outdated myths and clichés about yesterday’s IP by reviewing some of the annoyances of some real-life IP’s on their fictitious counterparts.
Pets from real-life IPs over fictional IPs
A group of PIs were asked what misconceptions they would like to correct in the representations of PIs in novels, movies, and television. Below are some of their responses:
Stay legal. At least 80% of the IPs surveyed mentioned this as their main concern. Fictitious IPs are often shown doing illegal things when, in reality, real-life IPs abide by the laws. Because if they don’t, they could lose their business and their license, a risk no IP wants to take. If an IP does not know their legal rights, knows how to look up the statute, or has an attorney / client to call for advice. No self-respecting private investigator gets into a legally murky situation without knowing exactly what actions are legal. Missteps and missteps cloud a private investigator’s reputation, which is perhaps his most critical asset because it reflects both his ethics and skill.
To be prepared. Colombo (the detective from the ’70s TV series with the same name) always came back (and over and over again) to the witness, before he finally asked the zinger question. He never seemed to have a plan on how to get information in one go. Today’s private investigator usually has one chance, and only one chance, to interview a witness. There are no blunders, he / she has to get to the point. That means being prepared. When a principal investigator first contacts a witness, the principal investigator needs to know the purpose of their questioning, as well as the questions themselves. Sometimes legal investigators (IPs who work for attorneys) will come armed with police reports or past statements from the witness. For example, sometimes a prior statement by a witness reveals to the investigator, in the course of the interview, that the witness statement has inconsistencies; such conflicts in a person’s history indicate that the witness is unreliable.
Tracking fantasies. PIs scoff at the idea that a lone PI can effortlessly perform successful mobile surveillance (i.e., follow someone in a vehicle) for hours on end. Mobile surveillance typically requires at least two IPs in two vehicles, and even then the success rate (based on one IP statistics) is 50%. And yet again and again, one will read (or see in a movie) a private investigator who magically follows someone into and out of traffic, turns, speeds, crosses intersections for an entire day. Try following one of your friends in traffic (especially when you don’t know your destination) and see how easy it is to lose your car.
Understanding of the business.Too many stories of PI ignore that an PI runs a business that involves negotiating and drafting contracts, managing money (and sometimes subordinate PIs), buying / upgrading office equipment, writing reports, etc. First, an IP has a business relationship with their client that includes all the legal ramifications that accompany any client situation.
Violence. Real IPs don’t hit people first, even if they’re angry. In fact, they don’t engage in acts of violence any more than they engage in robbery or robbery. The debate is ongoing within the IP community on whether to carry weapons or other weapons of self-defense.
Make it a straight whiskey. Real-life IPs don’t all drink like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade, and if it slipped a bit or hit them with a sap, they’d be ashamed of their lack of planning. Today’s private investigators wouldn’t risk dulling their senses as this could be used to denigrate them should they have to testify in court about their observations.
This is a good place to also notice things that today’s IP would never do. If a writer chooses to have their fictional PI do any of these acts, they are setting the PI character to be in a deep you-know-what (although, this could also be what you, as a writer, want for their PI, is better to know what is illegal than to write something that is manifestly so and not know it, right?).
A PI who wants to keep his job / license / career / reputation never:
Use these guidelines and myth busters to create smart and realistic 21st century IPs that will keep readers turning the pages of your stories.