My husband and I owned a private investigations agency for over a decade (he’s since returned to being a criminal defense lawyer & I continue to conduct investigations for his firm and other lawyers). Sometimes we’ll watch a movie or TV show starring a private eye and we can’t help but laugh at the implausibility of a situation. To be fair, some films get PIs right, but sometimes they set up scenarios that are more about Hollywood glitz than the real-world grind.

Such as surveillances…

Private Eyes and Stake-Outs

Below are a few slides we presented several years ago at a writers’ conference on writing private eyes in fiction. We took issue with Jake Gittes’ (Jack Nicholson’s iconic PI character) & other PIs’ stylish threads while on surveillance, but with a nod of respect to the private eye genre, too. In general, the writers were crafting current-day PI characters, so we used the noir examples to make a point about “blending in” while on surveillance.


Nice suit, but hey, Jake, it’s only Chinatown

A tie, suit, and hat on surveillance in the great outdoors…yeah, you blend

Okay, you’re getting a better shot with the window down, but you’re giving passersby a clear shot of you as well

Marlowe, you’re lookin’ tough standing at the window with a cig hanging off your lip, but people on the street below can, like, see you too

We’re fans of Marlowe, Spade, Gittes, and other private eyes in film and books. However, if you’re a writer crafting a contemporary PI, don’t fall back on the cliche of the whisky-swilling, gun-toting shamus. There are numerous online resources for learning about the real world of today’s professional PI, a few of which are noted below.

Online Resources and Articles About PIs

Private Detectives and Investigators (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes (my “sister” site, developed in 2009 as a resource for crime fiction writers & investigators)

Pursuit Magazine, the magazine of professional investigators

Lawyers and Private Investigators: A Symbiotic Relationship (article, Shaun Kaufman Law)

Cutting Cliches and Adding Realism to Private Eye Characters (article, The Zen Man)

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