In my current mystery novel, THE ZEN MAN, private investigator Rick Levine is charged with first-degree murder. Out on bail, he has 30 days to find the real killer or face certain life imprisonment. On a short “time leash,” what is the most critical action Rick can take to find the real killer? I’ll sum it up in one word: interviews.

Writing and Living the PI Life

Just as Rick and his lady love are a PI team in THE ZEN MAN, my PI business partner is also my husband (probably no surprise I wrote a Nick-and-Nora whodunit). In our investigations business, interviews are critical for finding witnesses, tracing missing persons and more. For Rick, a lapsed attorney skilled at cross-examination, interviewing key suspects is a tool to pry open possible motives and hopefully reveal the true killer.

People’s Words, Even Those They Don’t Speak, Are Powerful

Interviewing is more than asking a set of questions. It’s an art. Even with all of today’s whiz-bang technology, people’s words are still the most powerful declaration of where they stand – and what they know. Even the words a person chooses not to speak can speak volumes to his/her motive, who they’re protecting, and what they’re hiding.

Interviewing People Who Are Fearful or Angry…or Hiding Secrets

But just because a person is willing to be interviewed doesn’t mean the interview goes smoothly. People can have a variety of reactions, from shyness to anger, over being the subject of an interview. Often, people are afraid the investigator is going to drag them into court and they’ll have to testify on the stand, or they’re afraid of getting somebody else into trouble…or as in THE ZEN MAN, they’re working hard to hide deadly secrets.

Which means a private investigator must be skilled at coaxing information from people. Maybe Sam Spade could grumble, lecture and rant at people, but if a PI wants to successfully wheedle people’s confidences, he/she must be part psychologist, part confidante, part actor.

Traits that describe Rick as he cajoles, coerces, and charms dark and dirty secrets from others in THE ZEN MAN. Secrets he must bring to the surface not only to find the real killer, but to save his own life.