A little research can go a long way to creating plausible PI characters (image licensed by Colleen Collins)
Here at Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, we’re not only private investigators who also write (one of us is also a trial attorney), but we enjoy reading the private genre, too. But sometimes we read something so implausible, we groan out loud.
A year ago, we wrote about a few private eye bloopers that ripped us right out of the stories — something writers strive not to do to their readers. Some bloopers require some common sense to correct, others a little research on the writer’s part. Today, we add to that blooper list.
Without naming names or titles (in fact, we’ve disguised some story attributes so authors/books aren’t identifiable), we’ll discuss a few instances where we groaned out loud…and sometimes gave up on the story altogether.
The PI Isn’t Licensed Because…You’re Kidding, Right?
We’ve read stories where the private eye character isn’t licensed in a state that requires licensure. In the recent HBO series Bored to Death (which supposedly is being made into a movie, and we hope this rumor’s true) the private eye is unlicensed in New York, a state that requires PIs to be licensed. The PI character Jonathan Ames kick-started his private eye business by placing an ad in Craigslist. As real-life PIs, it bothered us that Jonathan continued to work undercover and unlicensed show after show…finally, a reference was made that, yes, he was unlicensed and courting legal trouble if were to be caught.
That was enough for us to buy into the story’s plausibility.
Then recently we read a story by an author writing a private eye series with a major publisher. The private eye is unlicensed in a state that requires licensure. Okay. The PI character admits she is unlicensed, but gets around this problem by not advertising herself as a private investigator but as a legal researcher. Okay. Then, out of the blue, the PI character explains why she never pursued a private investigator license: Because to obtain a license in that state, an applicant must either have a legal degree or past law enforcement employment.
Neither of us had ever heard of any state making such a requirement, but to double-check, we reviewed that state’s regulatory requirements for PI licensure. It took us all of 5 minutes to fact-check this. In this state, as with other states, a law enforcement background can be helpful (often, an applicant with that background gains credits toward earning a PI license). But there is no requirement to have been employed in law enforcement, nor to have a law degree. The writer seemed to think it necessary to add this made-up reason, but the character has already explained she wasn’t advertising herself as a PI. At the very least, any PI, PI-hopeful, person who might work with or hire PIs (paralegals, lawyers), law enforcement officers thinking of working as PIs after retirement would find this added reason silly.
If you’re writing a private eye story, and you’re not sure about licensure, below is a link (courtesy of Pursuit Magazine) that provides links to each state’s licensure requirements. Note: Some states, such as Alaska and Alabama, do not have PI licensing requirements, although the state will require a business license and some cities impose additional PI licensure requirements. Also, in Colorado, there is a voluntary licensure program–the keyword being voluntary–but there is no requirement to be licensed.
Listing of PI licensure requirements by state: Pursuit Magazine: PI Licensing
We just read a novel, actually one that is part of a series, where the private eye team met with an individual. As readers, we had
PIs don’t leave their partners clueless (image licensed by Colleen Collins)
no idea who this individual was, but considering the fictional PI team was hot on the trail of a case, obviously this person was someone who might have pertinent information about a suspect or the crime itself, or maybe was an eye witness, or…well, we were ready to find out.
Imagine our surprise when one of the PIs had no idea why the meeting was taking place! The individual with whom the PI team was meeting asked the clueless PI (very loosely paraphrasing the dialogue here), “You don’t know who am I?” The clueless PI answered, “No.” The individual turns to the other PI and asked, “Your partner doesn’t know why the two of you are here?” to which the first PI quipped something like, “Yeah, I don’t like to tell my partner everything — it’s good for [the clueless PI] to be surprised.”
What? A PI team goes to a meeting with a possibly important resource/witness/contact, and one of the PIs is purposefully left uninformed and clueless? This was one of several clueless episodes in this story, and the one that made us finally shut the book for good. There is no way one of us would drive the other to such a meeting and not brief our partner on the ride. It’s to the benefit of any case we’re working that we’re both as informed as possible. We both have our strengths, our styles of interviewing/investigating, and if we’re both well informed, we’ve just doubled our chances to unearth that telling detail, maybe even solve the case.
This isn’t PI rocket science. Even in the business world, who wants to purposefully take a clueless person to a meeting? Or how about leaving your car for repair at a shop and not tell anyone what you want fixed or looked at in your car?
Enough said. Onto the next PI peeve.
Cell Phone, Really?
If your private eye uses a phone, research the technology rather than make it up (image licensed by Colleen Collins)
It’s fairly safe to say that the majority of current-day PIs have basic-to-advanced technological skills. For example many of us rely on our smartphones to do a handful of investigative tasks that used to require a bucket load of equipment. For example, at our agency, we use our smartphones to record and transmit witness interviews, take photos, even scan and transmit documents. Cool stuff.
Here’s our techno-peeve: We recently started to read a story set in 1990 where the PI didn’t answer her cell phone because she’d forgotten to charge it. Uh, what? Cell phones were in common use in 1990? To be fair, we researched cell phones on the Internet. According to “The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983 and 2009,” the first truly portable phone was the Motorola MicroTAC 9800X made in 1989 — a monster affair with a ruler-size antennae. According to Wikipedia, the 9800X’s price tag was between $2,495 and $3,495. This wasn’t a rich PI by any means — in fact, this gumshoe had to scrimp on food and other essentials to make the monthly rent. Seriously doubt this fictional PI could afford a cell phone that cost several thousand dollars. Heck, even today, my business partner and I wouldn’t blow that kind of money on a cell phone!
By the way, the next cell phone was the digital hand-size mobile telephone called the Motorola International 3200 made in 1992, two years after this story took place.
It’s a small point, maybe, but cell phones are such a part of our world today that this inaccurate factoid stood out like Philip Marlowe at a nunnery. Wouldn’t have taken much research for the writer to realize the PI probably used a landline in 1990. Still can’t figure out how this slipped past the editor…maybe he/she was too busy on their cell phone to notice.
Have a great week, Writing PIs
All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.