Monday, July 13, 2009

The Truth About Private Detectives

by Austin S. Camacho

I find it interesting that Ben Small should be here chatting about handguns just as I was thinking up a piece on private detectives. I think 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 . Like Ben with guns, I figured if I was gonna write about these guys, I ought to learn something about them. Researching for my stories has taught me a lot about the reality of private investigation. I think a lot of people have a rather romanticized picture of private eyes, so 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 if they choose. 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.
Some people question why we need private investigators. Isn't that what we pay the police for? Well, the reason I like to write a fictional private eye is that there are things they do that the cops can't, and most of them are even 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


Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article, Austin. Most of their work can be pretty boring--such as stakeouts--as well as dangerous. We novelists do make their work seem more glamorous than it really is. :)

Chester Campbell said...

I have a couple of PI friends I sometimes ask for input. One gave me the plot for my last book, which I modeled after a case she handled a few years ago. The main difference is hers didn't involve any murders, as mine does. But you have to make things more exciting than real life.

Ben Small said...

Well done. But there are large, international firms that do background or investigative work for corporations. I've used them; indeed, many large corporations have them on staff. I've had them investigate trade secret theft and used them to set up terminated distributors selling bogus goo under companys' trademarks -- counterfeiting, if you will. Or to uncomplicate an embezzling employee's maze of dummy corporations used to stash his stolen proceeds. Most of these guys are former FBI or politically connected -- or both. And the large, international firms are expensive. They offer a range of services, often including security advice and training for executives... and protection.

Then there are the folks who do this electronically, for instance the folks searching for pervs on MySpace or FB or elsewhere. I suppose one could call them a form of investigator, too, but I suspect you're talking more the Sam Spade type of private investigator. I've used them, too, but mostly for litigation, for instance, catching a shot of a guy loading heavy furniture into his U-Haul when he claimed to be in a wheelchair, or for legwork, like tracking expense report fraudulent receipts submitted by a company executive.

I wouldn't want to do it, but I guess some find it glamorous. At street level, I suspect it can be both boring and dangerous.

asset searches said...

Truly there are a lot of things that a private detective or a private investigator can do. They can focus on certain cases; they do it professionally and never leave a case unsettled.