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.
- Following That Car For Hours... and Hours
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.
- Laws? What Laws?
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.
An example: This past year I read a story where the private eye claimed a restraining order didn't take effect until after the petitioner and respondent left the courtroom. I suppose this writer wanted to add tension to a courtroom scene, but he got the legalities wrong. Actually, a temporary retraining order is already in effect when the parties enter the courtroom for the final restraining order hearing.
Tips: A writer can check a legality by asking a lawyer, paralegal or a reference librarian at a public or law library. Licensure requirements for P.I.s are listed by state on the P.I. Magazine site.
- Who Cares About That Stinkin' Trash? We Do!
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.
For example, in a recent story a knowledgeable private eye discovered a small bag of garbage that had been placed on her front porch, and she wondered if it was accidental or if it meant something. A surprise gift of garbage and she ponders if it's significant? So she carries it around with her and only opens it after another character (not an investigator) suggests there might be a clue in that trash. Guess what? There was!
Tip: For those wishing to read more about the fine art of trash hits, here's a link to an article "Getting Down and Dirty: Conducting Trash Hits."
- Hey, Don't Leave Your DNA on That Dead Bod
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?
Tip: Lots of real-life P.I.s carry latex gloves (in a purse, in a glove compartment). Would help me believe the story more if the protagonist cared enough to not set him/herself up for homicide charges by slipping on a latex glove before rummaging a dead body's clothing for that all-important clue.
- Cell Phone Savvy
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 unless a writer has established that a contemporary fictional P.I. is a technophobe, I'm baffled when a private eye is clueless about his/her cell phone. For example, recently I read a story featuring a seasoned private eye who received a threatening call on her cell phone from the bad guy. Afterward, the P.I. read the number on the caller ID, recognized it as being a close friend's number, and wondered how the bad guy gained usage of her friend's cell phone. Considering the prevalence of spoofing (falsifying the number that displays on the recipient's caller ID), I was surprised this experienced P.I. hadn't guessed this caller had spoofed the P.I.'s friend's number to encourage the P.I. to answer the phone. Which, come to find out, was exactly what had happened.
Tip: If you want to learn more about phone spoofing, check out these services: Spoofcard.com, Telespoof.com and SpoofTel.com.
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.
- Rolling It Right: Robert Crais
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.
- Smart Surveillance: Michael Wiley
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.
- Investigative Insecurity: Ed McBain
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.
Another aspect of Milton Davis's investigations that is worth noting: he didn't rely solely on government reports (which, unfortunately, some real-life and fictional P.I.s do). In "Death Flight," Davis uses his common sense and innate intelligence to conduct a complex analysis of an airplane crash scene rather than base his investigation on analyzing government reports.
- The Fruitful World of Trash: Lisa Lutz
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.
Although we'd never let a teenager sift through trash (sometimes we've found items such as used drug needles), Isabel's approach is right-on.
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.