Tuesday, July 19, 2011

PI Mistakes Crime Fiction Writers Make by Steve Brown

Today, in honor of True Crime Tuesday, Steven Kerry Brown, a real life private investigator, is here to tell us about mistakes fiction writers make with their fictional PIs. Thanks so much for coming and take it away Steve!

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.


Steve Brown is the author of THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PRIVATE INVESTIGATING. He blogs with James N. Frey and Jeffrey Phillips at Handcuffed to the Ocean. You can also find him at his website.

25 comments:

M.E. said...

Thanks for the interesting blog post interview - I'm off to Amazon to add this reference book to my collection...before I write about any PIs.

Roberta Isleib said...

Steve, these are terrific! thanks so much for visiting JRW!

Hallie Ephron said...

Wow. Great post, Steve. So good to see you debunking cop cliches. Do you think all today's electronics make it easier for PIs to discover stuff, or easier for the people they're investigating to hide stuff? And what advice would you give to a character who's being pursued by a PI and doesn't want to be found?

Ramona said...

Great post! Thanks for reiterating that getting it right is important. The phrase, "But it's fiction!" makes me grind my teeth.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

SO interesting! Thank you! DO you think most PI's are ex-police? Are there more women now? Do most clients pay their bills?

What's a complaint that a PI might have about a client?

Donnell said...

Steve, always a pleasure to read your input. Scary, but always a pleasure, because I have to look back and make sure my research is right. Thanks to you, it is. All best.

Gail Chianese said...

Hi Steve, great post. I'm actually starting my first PI book (and yes, I do have your book -so thanks). You said you've never had an argument or harsh word with police/FBI, which I think is great, but do they share their information with you?

Cassy Pickard said...

Steve, this is great! Would mind taking a few moments and telling us about gadgets? What are the tools of your trade that might be slightly unusual for those of us who merely eavesdrop on conversations at the table next to us in a restaurant. Thanks!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, good question, Cassy!

Pj Schott said...

I have Mr. Brown's book in my dead tree library. Love it!!! Now it's on my Kindle. Thank you for the reminder.

Pauline Alldred said...

Thanks for the helpful post.

Steven Kerry Brown said...

Hallie asked about electronics. Good question. I mentioned in the post about GPS rentals. GPS tracking devices have made surveillance so much easier if it can be used.

Some states like Florida require law enforcement to get a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a car. But the state law doesn't address the use of GPS in civil matters. Just a few weeks ago a NJ court ruled that a wife and her PI had not violated her husbands expectation of privacy by attaching a GPS tracker to his car. He sued the PI and the state appeal court ruled its use was okay. Here's the link: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/07/judge_rules_use_of_gps_to_trac.html

Steven Kerry Brown said...

Not sure that link to the NJ ruling on the use of GPS came across clearly. Maybe you can make it work. Hallie also asked for "advice would you give a character who's being pursued by a PI and doesn't want to be found?"

The first thing is don't apply for credit anywhere. Don't rent an apartment where they do a credit check on you. Much of the information we acquire through our databases comes from credit bureau info. We don't have access to charges on your credit cards, not to worry about that, but if someone runs a credit check on you we'll know. Also turn off your cell phone. We may not be able to do cell pings like LE does but there are some things we can do with cell phones. I'm not going to tell you what those are because I just can't reveal any trade secrets that aren't mine.

steven Kerry Brown said...

Hank asked are most PIs ex-police? Many of us are, for sure. Most states require some sort of licensing and that usually involves certification with 2 years of prior investigative experience. Interesting, though, that time on the street as a patrol person will not qualify you in most states. NY may be different. The experience needs to be investigatory in nature.

Female PIs. Bundles of them, and frankly, my best PI employees have been female.

Do clients pay their bills? Attorneys are the worst to collect from. Private clients, which are most of my clients, I always take a non-refundable retainer up front. When I've worked through the retainer I get more money from them, usually. It depends upon the relationship we've established.

steven kerry Brown said...

Casey asked about gadgets. Well, I'm not a big gadget fan but I have some. I have a watch that doubles as a voice recorder. Illegal as hell to use in Florida but that's not true in other states. Still.... If you want to see what's available I'd suggest you browse through these two websites. http://www.pimall.com/nais/links.html and http://www.pigear.com/

I think you'll be amazed at what's available.

Rosemary Harris said...

I NEEEED this book. I just introduced a PI in one of my books and like her so much she may become a recurring character. Thanks for all the tips!

Julia said...

Wonderful information. With all the privacy issues and possibilities for identity fraud the internet has gifted us with, I think the PI genre is becoming ever more relevant!

Deborah Crombie said...

Wow, what a fascinating post! Thanks, Steve. I don't write PI books but love reading them, and your comments are helpful from the police angle, too.

How if someone would just write an "Idiot's Guide to British Policing" . . .

Or we could just read the papers:-)

Roberta Isleib said...

yeah, debs, you've got a lot of material lately!!!

Kathleen George said...

Good info! Thrilled to have it. The cops I talk to also attempt to be fair and cordial on cases with FBI agents and PIs. Thanks!

Ruth McCarty said...

Steve, thanks for the information. I'm off to Amazon to purchase your book too. It's just what I need.

Steven Kerry brown said...

There's another book on writing about private investigators that you might want to check out. It is called, How to Write a Dick, by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. You can find it on Amazon in Kindle edition.

Pat Marinelli said...

As usual, Steve, great stuff. I have your book but haven't written a PI story as yet.

Living in and writing about New Jersey, the GPS info is wonderful.

We have a PI here in Jersey who when I met him a few years ago was the only NJ PI who was not a former LEO. He also said his wife and partner was a better PI. She could do more things then he could do and not get spotted because she was a woman. Like carry a camera in her purse.

Pat Marinelli
Crime Scene: New Jersey

MEC Garcia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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