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Friday, November 26, 2010


The Difference between Fictional PIs and Real PIs

When people find out I'm a private investigator, they inevitably say something like, "Wow, that must be fun!" I know then that these folks have been watching too much TV or reading too many PI novels. Being a private investigator can be interesting (and occasionally terrifying), but it's rarely what I would call fun. So I thought I'd write today about the difference between television PIs and real PIs.

Block Watch never interrupts fictional surveillance

During real-life surveillance, at least where I live, I am often parked for all of ten minutes before someone knocks on my car window. "Hey you! What are you up to?" Ack! A PI can't exactly tell the truth—you don't know who you're talking to and you don't want to spread tales about the neighbors. I often have to fall back on the "Oh, isn't this Oak Street? I’m supposed to meet my husband there!" dumb woman routine. This works especially well with men (sorry, guys, but it's true). I also spend a lot of time with a cell phone to my ear waving my hands around or doodling on a notepad like I pulled over to argue with the caller or to take complicated notes.

Fictional PIs can break the law with impunity

Although we might not like to admit it, PIs have no more rights than you do. We cannot trespass, we cannot invade anyone's privacy, we cannot threaten or rough up anyone, no matter how much we'd like to. If we do anything wrong, we are much more likely to be sued than the average person. In Washington State where I work, investigators are in the same insurance category as used tire recyclers—considered likely to spontaneously combust at any moment.

Fictional PIs always have noble clients

In fiction, the client who hires the PI is usually honest and has noble reasons. I wish this were always so in real life. When a client wants to hire me to find a missing person or to discover who caused him to be fired, I have to research the relationship between client and subject. I certainly don't want to help a stalker find his victim or set up a situation for a client to take violent revenge. (Now you're beginning to see why PIs are in the high-risk insurance category.)

The public tends to lump private investigators and police detectives together. While it's nice to be grouped with the law enforcement professionals I admire and respect, the truth is that real-life PIs usually work for the defense. So sometimes the subjects whose cases we are hired to work on are, frankly, sleazebags. But other times the prosecution is overzealous or on rare occasions, just plain wrong. In my experience, this is usually not the arresting officer's fault. Police generally arrive on a call having been told by a dispatcher what sort of crime is in progress, and then they are constrained by law to arrest someone. 

The job of an investigator is not to be an advocate, but to go out there and gather everyone's stories and whatever evidence exists and deliver that to the defense attorney (often a public defender) to work with. Think you'd never need a public defender? Ha! Consider that accusations are easy to make and hard to disprove, add that most attorneys charge more than $200/hour, and you can see how most of us would need a public defender if—God forbid—we were accused of a felony. For the record, most public defenders are smart, dedicated, and extremely overworked lawyers, and the investigators who work for them are even more dedicated, underpaid, and overworked. It's definitely an uneven playing field and often thankless work, but we do it because we want to see justice prevail.

Fictional PIs always look their best

I'm actually pretty cute for a woman my age, but often an investigation job requires me to be as invisible as possible. The name of the game is not to attract attention. So I don the stained baseball cap and sunglasses, the sweatshirt, the stocking cap, whatever works in the environment I need to be in. Add hours of surveillance, especially sitting in a hot car or crouching behind a bush in the pouring rain, and you do not end up looking (or smelling) like a luscious babe. I recently had a job that involved crawling all over a steep, rocky, overgrown lot to take photos from various vantage points; I ended up with leaves in my hair, scratches on my face, and hives all over my body. Definitely not glamorous.

In fiction, justice usually prevails

If only that were true in real life. I've worked on a few cases that I suspect were wrongfully judged, and I've worked on many where the perpetrator got away with the crime. This especially happens in financial cases. I recently had a very personal reminder of that. My credit card information has been stolen twice in the last six weeks, and I've been working on discovering the perpetrator because the credit card companies don't pursue criminal charges. However, since I didn’t actually suffer a financial loss, according to the law, the merchants and credit card companies are the victims, and a few thousand dollars is nothing to them, so there will probably be no criminal case even if I locate the perpetrator.

But all PIs deal with the same issues

Whether it's in fiction or in real-life, all PIs deal with the same problems. Our clients are individuals and families in trouble. We see businessmen cheated by their partners, custodial parents neglecting children, spouses having affairs and hiding assets, and teens making bad, bad decisions.

Although I can't use details too close to a real investigation case, I do use my investigation experience in my stories. All my books—both romances and mysteries—include characters in big trouble, who must investigate and solve a crime. In my current romance, On Shaky Ground, my protagonist Elisa has just inherited her family business, a plant nursery, which is plagued by vandalism and arson, and now she's being investigated by a hunky insurance investigator. 

My first mystery, Wild, is about the search for a child in a national park. The rights have been purchased by Berkley Prime Crime and the novel will be republished with a few changes and possibly a new name in 2011, but there are a few copies of the original still floating around on Amazon.

I love writing about investigations in my fiction, because I can always make justice prevail there.

Pamela S. Beason
Author of On Shaky Ground (Wild Rose Press August 2010)
and a new Sam Westin mystery series launching from Berkley Prime Crime in 2011
blogging about nature and the writing life at
Pamela S. Beason lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes novels and screenplays and works as a private investigator. When she’s not on the job, she explores the natural world on foot or cross-country skis, in her kayak, and underwater as a scuba diver.


DetectiveDenise said...

I tend to play the game and play along that it's pretty much like the TV, it's always amusing to me how people prefer the fantasty rather than the truth, great article.
Detective Denise

Pamela S. Beason said...

Thanks, Denise. I prefer the fantasy, too; I try to make sleuthing more glamorous in my stories.

PI Pam

Mary Ricksen said...

What an amazing job despite the incorrect picture of a PI. You do the work of the righteous and that is something to be very proud of. So wear that mustache, cap, or thick blank glasses. We all need people like you. And it sure can't hurt as a writer!

Pamela S. Beason said...

I do collect a lot of 'characters' for my books. Names and appearances are changed, of course.

PI Pam

Kathy Otten said...

Loved your post! I wrote one similar once regarding fictional and real historical deputy marshals. When I saw this I just had to stop and check it out. I did always wonder why all the TV PI's never got in trouble for breaking into offices or stealing files. And how can that evidence be used in court?

liana laverentz said...

Fascinating. I appreciate hearing about the differences between real PIs and those in fiction.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Hi Pamela - thanks for this great posting. I know I'll return for further reading.

Mariposa Cruz said...

Hi Pamela,

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes details. Great post!

Pamela S. Beason said...

Thanks to all who read my blog and posted comments. And to Kathy, who asked about court, we PIs try to stay out of court, but our methods can definitely be questioned on the witness stand, so it pays to obey the strict letter of the law. Otherwise, a PI could end up getting sued by her own client attorney for screwing up the case. I can't imagine anything worse.

If you read my romantic suspense, On Shaky Ground, please give me an online review! Thanks.

PI Pam

jbafaith said...

Thanks for your article. It was interesting to see both points of view and to see that in fiction one can control the characters to all be honest, noble, etc. whereas in life, 'taint so! I also love the area you live in. I love the Olympia Peninsula area and would love to live there!

Judy Bradley