I love private eye characters, stories and film as much as the next guy or gal, but sometimes I groan out loud when a writer doesn’t bother to do a bit of research to add at least a whiff of realism to a private investigator’s actions. After co-owning a PI agency and having the honor to judge PI novels and short stories for the Private Eye Writers of America, here’s a few thoughts on the subject…

Gumshoe Story Nits

A few story-stoppers I’ve come across:

Calling an interview an interrogation. There’s a difference. Here’s an article at Issues in Forensic Psychology that explains it: “Interviewing vs. Interrogation.”

Following a vehicle for hours, and never once being detected.  I know, it happens all the time in TV shows, but copying what’s done on TV is lazy writing. Worse, I’ve read scenes in novels where the private eye/sleuth character is in a car the suspect has already seen, knows the car belongs to the PI, and the suspect continues blithely on his way as if he’s totally clueless that he’s being tailed.

Here’s an article I wrote on magical thinking and surveillances that contains a few tips for adding realism to a surveillance scene: “The Rockford Files: Magical Surveillances in a Gold ’78 Firebird”

gavel and scales

If a character states a legality, make sure it’s really a legality. Recently I read a mystery novel where a character claimed a restraining order didn’t take effect until after the people left the courtroom. Actually, once the temporary restraining order is approved, it’s in effect. Meaning, it is in effect while the parties are in the courtroom.

How do you double-check a legality? One easy way is to research it on the Internet.

A P.I. discovers a dead body and rummages through the decedent’s clothes. Right. Just what a private investigator wants to do—put his/her fingerprints and DNA all over a dead body. If your gumshoe character is on top of her game, maybe she carries around a pair of latex gloves?

A P.I. stumbles onto a major crime scene and collects evidence. This is a variation of rummaging through a dead body’s clothing. In real life a private investigator would call on police to handle a major crime scene, such as a murder or arson. For a PI to take it upon himself to handle, test, and collect evidence could easily result in his being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence. Unless you’re writing a gumshoe character who has a serious yen to go to jail, he’s going to carefully avoid touching anything at the scene of a crime other than to assess a victim’s medical condition.

I’m not saying fiction should follow reality to a boring T. After all, it builds tension for a private eye character to stumble upon a dead body, and if there were sufficient reason, maybe to check out what’s on the body. But let’s be real—maybe Sam Spade could pull it off, but in today’s world, it’d be dumb for a sleuth character to leave fingerprints at the scene of the crime, not to mention the charges that could be levied against the individual if it was discovered he’d been there. So think latex gloves, or maybe the sleuth using a ballpoint pen to lift a lapel…you get the picture.

Researching Your Fictional Gumshoes’s Deeds

fedora black and white

Research Sites

Below are several sites on private investigators’ techniques, tools, and more:

Guns, Gams and Gumshoes: My PI partner’s and my site. Lots of tips for writers writing sleuths.

Pursuit Magazine: An online magazine with articles by private investigators and others on topics ranging from real-life case stories, legalities of the profession, investigative tips and more. The magazine also covers other specializations, such as bail enforcement, security, skip tracing, and process service.

Private Eye Confidential: The views and musings of California PI Mike Spencer.

Diligentia Group: The site is for a boutique investigations firm, but its articles are beyond boutique. Brian Willingham, CFE, the president of Diligentia Group writes informative articles about background, fraud, and legal investigations.

Fulmer, PI: Site for Utah PI Scott Fulmer, who also provides a series of podcasts on different aspects of private investigations via this site.


A sampling of nonfiction books on private investigations:

How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths. My husband and I have taught numerous workshops and online classes on private investigations to writers, which we compiled into this nonfiction book.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition: By one of the best in the business, Steven Kerry Brown, former FBI special agent and veteran private investigator. By the way, he also writes private eye novels.

Confessions of a Private Eye: My Thirty Years Investigating Cheaters, Frauds, Missing Persons and Crooks by Scott Fulmer. Check out the link to Scott’s investigation site in section above.

Private Eye Confidential: Stories from a Real P.I. by Mike Spencer. Check out the link to Mike’s investigation site in section above

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Do not copy/distribute any content without written permission from the author.

Winner 2015 Aspen Gold

When a dead body shows up at a coroner’s conference, Rick Levine—a former, fallen-from-grace defense attorney and current private eye—investigates the murder with help from his new girlfriend Laura, making this a date she’ll never forget.

Click on cover to go to Amazon page

“I loved The Zen Men and really had fun catching Rick and Laura’s first case in the prequel, The Ungrateful Dead. These novels have everything I love in a mystery: smart dialogue, a flawed hero, a little romance and a great plot. Murder at a coroner’s conference? What could be more fun!”
~ Nancy Warren USA Today Bestselling author of the Toni Diamond mysteries.