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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Truth About Private Detectives – Outside of Mystery Novels


Most people think they know all about private investigators but tell me, have you ever met one? I have. And I was neither a client nor a target. I write a series about a private detective named Hannibal Jones, most recently seen in last month's release, Russian Roulette. Researching for his stories has taught me a lot about the reality of private investigation. I know a lot of people have a very romanticized picture of private eyes and I thought I'd share some of the facts I've gathered about P.I's with you.


First of all, books and TV would give you the idea that there are millions of private detectives out there, in every city and on every street. The fact is, there are only about 45,000 private detectives in the whole country. That might still sound like a lot until you realize that only about a quarter of them are self-employed. About the same number work for some detective agency. Then you subtract out the 15 percent who are store detectives. That leave about a third of the big number who are working for state or local government, law firms, employment services companies, insurance agencies, and banks and the like. None of them wants to help you with your problems.

So why only an average of less than 500 per state? Well, the hours suck. The work is dangerous. And people who are really qualified - the guys who could be Sam Spade or Joe Mannix or Hannibal Jones - usually have better sense. Their ability allows them to stay in law enforcement, or the military, or work for an insurance company. They might also get jobs in government or doing intelligence work.

Most P.I.s come from those professions and many of them are highly qualified. Not all of them have their B.S. degree in police science but some have lots more valuable years of police experience or time in a federal law enforcement agency. On the other hand, some have no qualifications at all, and it’s buyer beware if you’re in the market for one.

Most states, like Washington DC, require private detectives to get a license. The requirements are all different, though, and in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota there's no license required at all.

People sometimes question why we need private investigators. Isn't that what we pay the police for? Well, the reason I like to write a fiction private eye is that there are things they do that the cops can't, and most of it's legal. The biggest thing, in real life, is the surveillance. Sure, you can check a guy's employment or income with a phone call, but to know what he's really up to, nothing replaces laying eyes on a guy for hours or days at a time. The police can't afford the resources for that kind of thing. They also can't informally interview friends, neighbors and coworkers. Lawyers and businesses hire private eyes to do that kind of thing as often as individuals do. And the cops can't just work one case until it's done, like they do on TV. Private investigators can, and generally do.

P.Is often take more varied jobs. They do personal protection work, stop harassment, get
the goods on people at the wrong end of law suits and child custody cases, and occasionally handle missing person cases. A few specialize in computer fraud or identity theft. Some say they are not interested in premarital screening or verifying infidelity, but for others, that's their bread and butter.

I was surprised to learn how often they specialize. There are Private detectives who focus on intellectual property theft. There are legal investigators, corporate investigators, financial investigators, store and hotel detectives.

All this specialization made it plausible for my character, Hannibal Jones, to be a professional troubleshooter. He’s the only one I know of, but it fits the pattern I think.

I hope none of this spoils your ability to enjoy fictional private detectives. But I also hope that if you ever need one for real, you’ll have a better idea of who they really are.

There is more about private detectives – real and fictional – in the “Other Works” section of my web site, at http://www.ascamacho.com.

1 comment:

MarthaE said...

Hey Austin! Great to see you here and this is an interesting post! I have met a PI because he was trying to collect fees! Bummer! Oh - not collecting from me! I was the attorney for him! I think fictional characters and stories are often more interesting than real life. You know that saying "only in the movies!" Courtroom scenes are rarely true to life either! Martha