SKB: I’ve been an investigator for almost 40 years. Eleven years as a special agent with the FBI and almost 30 years as a private investigator. I devour commercial crime fiction. I also write both fiction and non-fiction which revolves mostly around private investigative type themes. There are some authors that “get it right” and many that do not. Who “get’s it right?” Nobody does all of the time but the following do a pretty damn good job of acutely portraying their PI protagonists. Robert Crais and Michael Koryta. There are others that get it right most of the time. Who screws it up? I’m not going to tell you.
But how can you tell? Here are 4 scenarios you’ll find in the typical PI novel.
The PI is computer illiterate and uses a geeky friend who lives in the basement of his mother’s house to get all of the online data he needs by hacking into private and government databases. No, no, no, no. Get the idea? I know this is fiction and we’re going to “suspend disbelief” but your fiction needs to have the appearance of reality. Show me a private investigator who is not computer literate, who doesn’t subscribe to at least 3 different proprietary databases and doesn’t have direct access to the department of motor vehicle records in his own state for vehicle tags and drivers license information and I’ll show you a PI who is starving to death.
Hmm, starving to death PI. Now that’s another cliché isn’t it? Let’s look at real life numbers. But first a little theory. There are always people who will work for less. If your PI protagonist is going to compete with the competition on price then he’s going to be serving subpoenas for $15 each. That won’t even come close to covering the price of gasoline in his/her car. I charge $85/hour plus expenses like $0.62/mile. This is augmented by charges for rental of GPS tracking devices ($350/wk), database, tags, and driving histories pulled etc. etc. etc. I pay my employee investigators and subcontractor investigators $40/hr and $0.50/mile. So if my employee bills 30 hours a week (and they can bill twice that) then they’re grossing $62,400/year. Not getting rich but not starving either. That’s more than most of us make writing about private investigators.
The third clichéd scene is where the private investigator irritates his nemesis in the police department. Detective Hardcase says, “You low life skulking PI. You better stay away from my investigation or I’ll pull your license.” First make sure your PI is working in a state that requires licensing. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, 2nd Edition, page 20-21 I’ve laid out which states do not require any licensing of private investigators. It’ll be difficult for detective Hardcase to pull my license if I don’t need one anyway. There have been some changes in the state list over the last year or so. If you have any doubts, email me.
Back to pulling that license. Can Detective Hardcase really do that? Not really. Licensing bureaus in most states are state agencies and licenses are not issued or denied by the local police or sheriff’s office. The worst Detective Hardcase could do is file a complaint with the state licensing bureau and then they would investigate, hold their hearings etc. So threatening to pull a private investigator’s license is mainly an empty threat and very, very clichéd. Don’t use it.
The fourth follows from the above scene. The private investigator is hired by “the family” to investigate a murdered/kidnapped/disappeared/ family member. Your protagonist is in competition with the police. Frankly, most private investigators make their living by conducting insurance “sub-rosa” surveillance in cases like workmen’s compensation, slip and falls, or other insurance related investigations where a claimant is screaming about serious injury but the insurance company thinks he is roofing his house on the weekends. That is the day-to-day pay-the-bills case most PIs work. But there are those who have practices like mine, that do involve murders/suicides/missing family members and whose paths do cross with the police department on nearly every case. I have yet to have a single argument or shared a harsh word with any police/FBI/state law officer in 30 years. Have I pissed some off? You betcha. They may bitch about me in their offices (usually because I’ve found good leads that they’ve missed and they look incompetent to their superiors) but our face-to-face relationships have always been cordial and professional, even under the most stressful of circumstances.