Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A defense attorney & PI who also happen to be writers

Excerpt HOW TO WRITE A DICK: Real-life PIs’ Pet Peeves About Fictional Ones

Posted by Writing PIs on July 4, 2011

How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, available on Kindle.

Real Life PIs’ Pet Peeves About Fictional PIs

A group of PIs were asked what misconceptions they’d like to correct in representations of PIs in novels, movies and TV.  Below are some of their responses:

Staying Legal: At least 80% of the PIs surveyed brought this up as their number one pet peeve.  Fictional PIs are often shown doing illegal things when, in actuality, real-life PIs abide by the laws.  Because if they don’t, they could lose their business and license — a risk no PI wants to take. If a PI doesn’t know his legal rights, he knows how to look up the statute or he has a lawyer buddy/client he’ll call for advice.  No smart PI goes into a legally-murky situation without knowing exactly what actions are lawful.  Slip-ups and missteps muddy a PI’s reputation, which is perhaps his most critical asset because it reflects both his ethics and skill.

Being Prepared: Columbo, the detective from the ‘70s’ TV series with the same name, always came back again (and again and again) to the witness, before he finally asked the zinger question.  He never seemed to have a plan how to obtain information efficiently.

A real-life PI typically has one shot, and one shot only, at interviewing a witness. There’s no bumbling around — he must get to the point.  That means being prepared.  When a PI first makes contact with a witness, the PI needs to know the purpose of his questioning as well as the questions themselves.  Sometimes legal investigators (PIs who work for attorneys) will come armed with police reports or past statements by the witness.  For example, sometimes a prior witness statement reveals to the investigator, in the course of the interview, that the witness’s statement has inconsistencies — such conflicts in a person’s story indicate the witness is unreliable.

Surveillance fantasies: Seasoned PIs scoff at the notion that a solitary PI can effortlessly pull off a successful mobile surveillance (meaning, following someone in a vehicle) for hours and hours.  Mobile surveillances typically require at least two PIs in two vehicles — and even then the success rate, per one PI’s statistics, is 50 percent.  And yet time and again one will read about or see in a movie a PI who magically follows someone who’s weaving in and out of traffic, turning, speeding, zipping through intersections for an entire day!  Try following one of your friends in traffic (especially when you do not know their destination) and see how easy it is to lose their car.

Business savvy: Too many PI stories ignore that a PI runs a business that entails negotiating and writing contracts, managing money and sometimes subordinate PIs, buying/upgrading office equipment, writing reports and so on.  First and foremost, a PI has a business relationship with her client that includes all the legal ramifications that come with any customer situation.

Violence: Real PIs don’t hit people first, even if they are mad. In fact, they don’t engage in violence anymore than they engage in burglary or theft. The debate is ongoing within the PI community as to whether to carry guns or other self-defense weapons.

Goin’ It Alone:  Real-life PIs frequently work alone, without Sam Spade’s ubiquitous gal Friday or Jim Rockford’s wise, ex-trucker father.  In fact, many PIs work out of their homes, with their websites functioning as their virtual offices.

Make It a Whiskey, Neat:  Real-life PIs don’t all drink like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade, and if they were to be slipped a mickey or hit with a sap, they’d be ashamed of their lack of planning.  Most real-life PIs wouldn’t chance dulling their senses as this could be used to denigrate them should they have to testify in court about their observations.

This is a good place to also note things a real-life PI would never do.  If a writer chooses to have her fictional PI do any of these acts, she’s setting up the PI character to be in some deep you-know-what (although, this might also be what you, as the writer, want for your PI—better to know than to write something that’s manifestly illegal and not know, right?):

A PI who wants to keep his job/license/career/reputation would never:

  • Knowingly assist a criminal in a criminal act
  • Get involved with jury/witness tampering (threaten a witness/juror so as to change testimony or a verdict)
  • Wiretap (place a listening device on a telephone)
  • Place a surveillance camera or microphone in a private place without the target’s knowledge
  • Commit a burglary
  • Slap a GPS device on a vehicle not registered to the client
  • Eavesdrop in a private place
  • Use violence or the threat of violence to get information
  • Pretend they have evidence that they don’t — the possibility exists that they are going to be asked to produce it by a lawyer or cop
  • Commit any other knowingly illegal act
  • Impersonate a peace officer.
Have a great week, Writing PIs
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2 Responses to “Excerpt HOW TO WRITE A DICK: Real-life PIs’ Pet Peeves About Fictional Ones”

  1. Being a real-life PI is no fun. I’ve done it.

    And in real PI work there are few stories except human tragedy.

    • writingpis said

      Hello Jack,

      It’s sad, and too often true, that there is much human tragedy in PI work. Which makes the cases where deserving people find justice all the more rewarding. We’ve had a few of those cases this year, which makes it all worthwhile.

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