Life and Death > Private Eyes

Where to Start.


Long story short:

I'm writing a noir-ish sci-fi murder mystery.  Thing.  Sort of.  Anyway, I've got a private detective as my protagonist, and my knowledge and exposure to private detectives is pretty much limited to Sherlock Holmes and Humphrey Bogart. 

Obviously, I'm checking out books from the local library, and doing whatever research I can, but I could use a few pointers.

Questions I have:

A) What can the PI do?  More specifically: 

How does a PI generally interact with the police on a case, where can a PI go that the police can't, etc.  Is it realistic, for example, for a PI to have a prison guard as a contact, who can let him in to the county jail to talk to a suspect?  Is it realistic for a PI to call up a bookstore and get access to surveillance tapes?  Would the PI's testimony about the tapes be admissible in court?  Can a PI interview witnesses to a crime, or would he have to go through an attorney?

B) How realistic should I make the PI?  Should I interview real PIs to see how they operate?  In short, how much research should I do to ensure realism and accuracy in my portrayal of the profession? 

The thing that's making me a bit stuck is that this isn't like "The Big Sleep," where there are a bunch of people engaged in a conspiracy that Bogie is trying to uncover.  The crux of the mystery lies in something that none of the characters has any control over, or is really aware of, and yet that uncontrollable thing is what causes the original murder to happen in the first place.  I can't figure out how to get my detective from point A, being hired by the victim's widow to prove the innocence of a wrongly-imprisoned suspect, to B, discovering the uncontrollable thing that is not at all evidenced at point A.

It's complicated, to say the least.  Any guidance would be appreciated. 

Old Bill:
Hi, Ethan, welcome.  I think you'll like this forum...there are lots of knowledgeable people.

In your case, I think you should start with research into the Professional Investigators' world.  PIs must be licensed in the state they work and are regulated differently in each.  Google their professional associations and if you can make some friendly contacts all the better.  BTW, the moniker 'private investigator' is switching to 'professional investigatior' in most states.

One caviat:  Unless a PI has a law enforcement background and/or a great reputation, most police agencies will have little to do with them.  However, insurance companies and attorneys will use them frequently.  Specifically, a jailer will go by the rules of his/her department regarding visitor/interview contacts and probably not risk getting in trouble bending the rules for a PI...he would be able to interview on behalf of an attorney.  Surveillance tapes are normally subpeonaed but in the past I have been able to view tapes in non-crim cases just by being nice to the clerk/manager in a convenience store.  As Security Manager in a mall, I let a PI use our surveillance system to gain info on one of his disability claims.  A lot of PI work can be informally obtained but must be documented with a darn good report.  The PI that I worked for after I retired from LE was a wizard at getting information and generally did not like to use retired cops but made an exception for me since I also worked in security at the time.  I learned that real PI work is NOTHING like what we see/read in is much more professional.

Probably more info than you need so, good luck with your story and research.

Old Bill

Great info - thanks a bunch.  I'm slowly getting a more complete picture, which will help me write this thing...


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