Props & Peeves!
Private Eye Stories from A Real-Life P.I.
by Colleen Collins
Okay, true confession time here. Yes, I'm a working professional private investigator , but the truth is... I love reading about fictional private eyes' searches for hidden truths down a wide variety of mean streets. I just love the stuff, and I'm honoured to have been asked -- not once, but twice -- to be a judge for the Private Eyes Writers of America.
But sometimes I just have to groan out loud. Like, when a protagonist mangles a basic investigative device, or blithely commits a major legal faux pas, I'll wonder why the writer didn't Google the technique, check out one of dozens of books on private investigations, or even interview a real-life P.I. Worse, I'll realize the writer cribbed the technique from another writer who also got it wrong. Sure, it's fiction. But getting an investigative method right adds plausibility, complexity, even tension to a story.
Without naming names, here are five pet peeves I've read in private eye stories. Following those peeves are several props for investigative techniques a writer's employed that are right-on, sometimes brilliantly so. Definitely naming names there.
It's amazing to me how many authors write scenes where their detectives, not knowing the subjects' destinations, successfully pull off hours-long (even day-long) surveillances in their cars. I wish the writer would try to follow a friend's car once and see how difficult it is to keep up with a vehicle through congested traffic and crowded intersections.
Unless a private investigator is working in an unlicensed state where it's okay to hang out a shingle with zero investigative experience (currently, 5 states do not require them to be licensed), they should understand the laws affecting their work. If they don't, they look up the statute, ask their network of fellow private investigators or contact a lawyer-friend. Yet authors sometimes write scenes where P.I.s claim things are legal (when they're not) or the sleuth conducts a blatantly illegal act with nary a second thought.
In my investigations business, we're trashaholics. Digging in trash has produced evidence of abducted children, use of illegal drugs, an affair and much more. Sometimes I wonder why more writers don't take advantage of this down-and-dirty investigative technique. And sometimes I cringe when a P.I.-protagonist ignores the whiff of clues right under her nose.
We've all seen or read it dozens of times in movies and books: the sleuth finds a dead body and touches it with his/her bare hands. I just read a story where the investigator, having accidentally slept all night next to a dead (brutally murdered) body, leaves the scene thinking no one will ever know he was there. Uh, you've just left your DNA all over the crime scene, bud. I've also read scenes where the private eye stumbles upon a dead body and rummages through its clothing with bare hands. Hello, DNA? Hello, tampering with evidence charges?
Most real-life P.I.s understand at least a few cell phone tricks of the trade, such as spoofing caller IDs and unblocking incoming phone numbers. Additionally, many of today's P.I.s use smart phones that function as virtual offices for such tasks as scanning documents and recording interviews.
So far I've noted some investigative faux pas in stories, but there are also plenty of writers who correctly capture investigative techniques and tools in their prose.
Researching and applying realistic investigative methods in stories isn't just about getting them right -- it's also about writers knowing the rules so they can break 'em. For example, if a fictional P.I. knows he's trespassing by entering a person's home without permission, but he's willing to risk being caught and charged with a felony, he's just upped the story stakes. What if he trespasses and sees an item within the home he wants to pocket as evidence -- a savvy P.I. knows he's now committing a second felony, which could easily mean mandatory prison time. Knowing the possible ominous consequences, but doing it anyway, adds thrills to a story.
So here's props to four writers who nailed investigation methods.
In Robert Crais's The First Rule, when Joe Pike wants to conduct a rolling (mobile) surveillance on the bad guy whose destination is unknown, he knows better than to cowboy it solo in one vehicle. He coordinates a lengthy multi-investigator, multi-car rolling surveillance. Kudos to Crais, because Pike does it right.
In the opening scene of Wiley's The Bad Kitty Lounge, P.I. Joe Kozmarski is sitting at a window-facing counter in a Chinese restaurant, enjoying his dinner. His Pentax camera, undetected on the counter, is focused on the surveillance target across the street. He's obviously done his homework (a good P.I. does pre-surveillance, knows the best place to wait and get the shot undetected). There's plenty of scenes in stories where the P.I.'s hunkered down in a chilly car in the dead of winter, ready to grab the camera with frozen fingers for "the shot." Kozmarski was smart -- he had warmth, food, and all he had to do was press a button when the subject appeared.
McBain's short story "Death Flight," featuring P.I. Milton Davis, was first published in 1954, but the detective's insecurity about his investigative talents while tackling a complicated crash investigation rings true to life. Some authors fall back on P.I.-Superman/Superwoman clichés (the cocky P.I. who knows the right investigative technique to use every time) as though the P.I. never once suffered job insecurity.
In The Spellman Files, the first in the series by Lisa Lutz, private investigator Isabel Spellman tells how, as a teenager, she learned to conduct garbology as part of the family investigations business. The 12-year-old Isabel would first don a pair of thick, plastic dishwashing gloves, then separate the trash from the treasures keeping items such as bank statements, bills, letters, notes.
Colleen Collins is a multi-published author and private investigator, and a budding P.I. writer. She's the co-author, with Shaun Kaufman, of How to Write a Dick, a writing guide for detective writers. Her upcoming release, a medium-boiled mystery, The Zen Man, features a husband-and-wife P.I. team. Read more about it at http://www.thezenman.com.
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