Besides working as a private investigator, I love reading the private eye genre.  And there’s plenty of wonderful writers out there crafting compelling stories featuring private eye protagonists.  I should know — for the last four years I’ve been honored to be a judge for the Private Eye Writers of America, and in this capacity I’ve read over 200 novels featuring private eye protagonists.

But sometimes I cringe when I read a cliche or blatant mistake about private investigators or their work.  Today I’ll note the top three mistakes I’ve found.

Bungling Crime Scenes.  This covers a range of activities, from PIs hanging out at crime scenes with their cop pals to rummaging through a dead body’s clothing to find a wallet, cell phone, matchbook, etc.  Regarding the former, I know, we see PIs and cops hanging out at crime scenes all the times in movies and TV shows, but it’s not like that in real life.  It’s not totally improbable — as my PI-lawyer-partner and I wrote about at our sister site, Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes  (“Answering Writer’s Questions about Police Detectives, PIs and Crime Scenes”), it’s possible a law enforcement officer, under extraordinary circumstances, might invite a PI onto a crime scene–for example, if the PI had some forensic expertise that would benefit the investigation–but as I said, it would have to be for an extraordinary reason.

As to bungling crime scenes, I wrote about that in greater detail, with input from several homicide detectives and a criminal defense attorney, for the blog Novel Rocket in the article “Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make at a Crime Scene.”

Understanding that Most PIs Today Are Techno-Savvy. I debated whether to write “most PIs” or “many PIs,” but I opted for most because in my experience, most PIs I know have some level, from basic to advanced, of technological smarts.  This might be only with their smartphone, which has become a one-stop shop of investigative apps, to using GPS devices, conducting skillful Internet searches, performing computer forensic investigations, and so on.smartphone

So it makes me a little crazy when I read about a contemporary private eye who’s hip and smart and uses cool whiz-bang stuff in his/her private life…but when it comes to conducting investigations, they stumble over basic cell phone technology.  Unless the writer has established that the fictional PI is techno-backward (which wouldn’t make sense for a current-day PI unless he/she doesn’t want to hone their craft or be competitive in the business), when I read about a PI not using basic cell phone tools, I think the writer didn’t care enough to learn how real-life PIs work.

Along these lines, below are a few articles on smartphone apps for private investigators–if you’re a writer developing a modern sleuth character, he/she might use some of these:

“iPhone Apps for Private Investigators”

“More iPhone Apps for Private Investigators”

“Outfitting Your Smartphone for Fire Investigations”

If you want to see how a writer portrays a contemporary PI who’s savvy with a smartphone, read The Cut by George Pelecanos.

Conducting Magical Surveillances.  Jim Rockford in that iconic private eye TV series The Rockford Files could follow subjects for hours in his flashy gold ’78 Firebird, but that was magical, not real.  Even saying that, have to admit that The Rockford Files is one of my favorite TV series. But following someone for hours in a shiny metallic muscle car only means you’re going to get burned (caught). Even if you’re in a nondescript vehicle that blends into traffic, it’s a challenge to follow someone undetected for thirty minutes, much less several hours.

I wish more writers would try following another vehicle, like a friend’s, and see how difficult it is–then use that experience in their stories (they’d learn, for example, how nerve-wracking it is to lose someone in traffic or get stuck at a red light while the subject car squeaks through the intersection on the yellow light).

Below are a few articles on conducting mobile surveillances:

“Surveillance Rule No. 1: Blend In” 

“Surveillances: When in the Country, Don’t Be a City Slicker”

“How to Conduct Mobile Surveillance”

Happy Writing and Reading!


SECRETS OF A REAL-LIFE FEMALE PRIVATE EYE by Colleen Collins – click on image to display Amazon page