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Posted by Writing PIs on October 15, 2011

Never Sleep with Anyone Whose Troubles Are Worse than Your Own

-Lew Archer in Black Money by Ross Macdonald (attributed to Nelson Algrin)

Originally published in NINK, newsletter for Novelists, Inc. April 2011

A common misconception is that a PI’s work mostly involves surveilling cheating spouses. Actually, there are dozens of investigative specialties that PIs practice, from accident reconstruction to insurance investigations to pet detection. Infidelity investigations, aka chasing cheaters, is one of those specialized fields.

Infidelity Investigations: An Investigative Specialty

Chuck Chambers, PI and author of The Private Investigator’s Handbook, specializes in infidelity investigations. He offers this interesting statistic: 98 percent of his female clients who suspect their husbands of cheating are correct, and 50 percent of his male clients who suspect their wives are correct.

At our agency, we specialize in legal investigations (trial preparation/investigations), but occasionally we get the “I think my husband/wife is cheating” call. We’re hesitant to take these cases because they’re fraught with emotion, from tears to homicidal rage. Tears we don’t mind, but that latter passion makes the work potentially dangerous. Remember the woman in Texas who ran over her philandering husband three times in the motel parking lot? Know how she learned her husband’s location? The PI she’d hired to follow her husband called her, explained her husband had just entered a hotel with another woman, and gave her the motel name and address. That PI’s firm was later sued for gross negligence and will ultimately pay the children of the deceased philander millions of dollars.

Chasing Cheaters: Adding Danger (or Humor) to a Story

Infidelity investigations being fraught with danger might be undesirable in reality, but it’s great for fiction. Maybe your sleuth/PI takes a cheating-spouse case thinking it’ll be an easy way to make a few bucks, but before the sleuth has time to focus her camera, she becomes a witness to a murder. The Texas PI mentioned earlier actually filmed the murder as it took place and then provided testimony to convict the spurned client. What if the infidelity case was just a ruse, and actually the betrayed-wife pretext lures the PI into solving another crime (think Chinatown).

Chasing cheaters can also add humor to a story.  We know a PI who ended up marrying his client’s divorce attorney. And – true story – we once followed a suspected philandering husband who the wife said also “appeared to be involved in some kind of new business.”  We learned what that new business was…a brothel.

What steps might a PI follow in a cheating-spouse case?

Catching the Cheater

When we accept an infidelity case, we request:

  • Information about the suspected cheater’s habits, work schedule, days off, etc.
  • Photographs of the suspected cheater (and the suspected girlfriend/boyfriend, if available)
  • Addresses and phone numbers (suspected cheater’s home, businesses, etc. as well as addresses/phone for suspected girlfriend/boyfriend)
  • Any known routes suspected cheater takes on way to work, home, to exercise gym, etc.
  • Vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers for suspected cheater (and suspected girlfriend/boyfriend)

What About Attaching a GPS Device to the Suspected Cheater’s Vehicle?

Unless the spouse’s name is registered on the suspected spouse’s vehicle (and it’s surprising how many spouses think their names are, but they aren’t), this is a big no-no. We’re talking felony. Not counting the possibility of extraordinarily bad publicity.

But again, what’s bad in reality can be great for fiction. What if your PI knows he’s courting a felony, but attaches the GPS device anyway, gets caught, and ends up in jail. We know a PI who this happened to. He knew his client’s name wasn’t on the spouse’s vehicle registration, but attached the GPS anyway. A woman in an adjacent parking lot saw him crawl underneath the vehicle with an object, then reappear empty-handed. She called the police and said, “I think a guy just attached a bomb to a car.”

Next thing the PI knew, police, fire trucks, and bomb squads arrived, and he was in handcuffs. Nearby schools, homes, and businesses were evacuated. News stations picked up on the story, reported the bomb threat. It took him nearly two years and $8,000 in legal fees to salvage his investigations business.

Think about how to use infidelity investigations with your fictional PI As in the story above, it could be an expensive, comic subplot. Or maybe a seemingly distraught client hires a PI to watch his/her spouse, when the real reason for the investigation is something much darker.


How Do Private Eyes Do That? is a compilation of articles about private investigations written by Colleen Collins, a professional private investigator (and one of the Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes blog authors). Its topics are geared to readers interested in the world of PIs, including fiction writers, researchers, investigators and those simply curious about the profession.

“If you’re looking for the lowdown on private investigations, this is it. Packed with details and insights. A must-have for anybody writing private-eye fiction and for anybody who’s curious about what being a private-eye is really like.”
– Bill Crider, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series and many other novels in multiple genres

“A must have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff.”
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