Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Marlowe’

Private Eye Fiction Groaners

Posted by Writing PIs on March 17, 2013

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

Clueless, Really?

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.

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Has the Private Eye in Movies Lost Its Myth?

Posted by Writing PIs on January 18, 2013

This morning we were amused, surprised and even a bit intrigued after reading several crime fiction articles.  One claimed that the “myth” of the private eye in movies, a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, is not a “renewable source.”  Another shook its figurative finger at publishers for their lack of “gritty” credibility.

We needed an extra cup of coffee–black like our noir-loving hearts–to digest these cynical tid-bits.

Below are links to these articles, with a few of our notes.  We wish we could added more, but we have work to do.  Investigating a case, interviewing witnesses, dragging a reluctant client to his probation.  The real-life stuff of a criminal defense attorney and a PI–funny how some people, non-PIs, think all we do is sit at computers and search databases.  Kinda like how some critics proclaim the private eye genre has gone flabby.  You get our drift.

The Private Eye Movie=Not a Renewable Resource

It's Only ChinatownForget It, Marlowe–It’s Chinatown. Subtitle: “How Roman Polanski‘s masterpiece demythologised the hard-boiled private eye” by  Graham Fuller,

The writer starts out saying that the “movie version of the hardboiled private eye…was never as enduring as his literary original.”  He goes on to say that the re-release of Polanski’s Chinatown reminds us that the myth consecrated by Spade and Marlowe is not a renewable resource.

Don’t get us wrong–we thoroughly enjoyed this article, which is noir-ly despairing of the “knight errant” role of the private eye as epitomized by Bogart as first Spade in The Maltese Falcon, then as Marlowe in The Big Sleep.  But we had trouble buying that this character’s heydey was during and after World War II.  We were also a bit confused with the analysis that the obese police captain character (who plants evidence and stoops to murder) in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil had the “aura of a private eye.”  Uh, what happened to the epitomized knight errant model?

The writer devoted several paragraphs about Altman’s 1973 The Long Good-bye with Elliot Gould as Marlowe, a film we both love.  Some believe Altman’s movie version is more Chandler in spirit than, say, Hawks’s The Big Sleep. In this article, the writer believes it was private eye Jake Gittes in Chinatown, made a year or so after Altman’s The Long Good-bye, that restored the knightly myth.  Restored?  Did it really go away?  To our mind, Gould’s Marlowe held onto that tarnished knightly myth as a PI steeped in cynicism and shady deeds, yet we, the viewer, still got glimpses of a deeply personal involvement that sometimes errs on the side of morality. That’s the gumshoe myth that still appears in films, too.  We’re not saying all the time, but we certainly don’t think it stumbled off its cracked pedestal after WWII.  Anybody see Michael Shannon in the 2009 Australian film The Missing Person?

Bought off: how crime fiction lost the plot.  Subtitle “Thriller writing was once a British strength, but publishers are reducing it to a formulaic genre. Time, maybe, for murder most foul…” by Christopher Fowler, the Independent

We’re not British, but we found it interesting that the writer encourages readers to “step away” from crime fiction publishers’ current offerings because the “genre has backed itself into a dead end.”  His view is that publishers are falsely advertising their latest murder mysteries to be grittily realistic.

They aren’t grittily real?

May we take this to a bigger view of crime fiction?  One of us has been privileged to be a judge for the Private Eye Writers of America bad private eye with gunthree times (2013 will be her fourth stint).  In this capacity, she has read several hundred private eye-crime novels, and many (she lost count) short stories in the genre as well.  And sometimes she agrees that the crimes portrayed aren’t realistic, gritty or otherwise, but just as often they are dead-on correct.  One way she knows this is she has investigated certain types of crimes, and other times she has analyzed the crimes with her once-PI-partner who is now a criminal defense attorney (with nearly 30 years in the criminal justice field), as well as with a good pal, a local homicide detective, who has been walking some very real, very mean streets for several decades.

Yet in a recent book she wrote, which she researched based on several real, gritty crimes, then followed up by having several experts in the field check the book for legal veracity and crime accuracy, one Amazon reviewer sniffed that one crime in particular was “implausible.”

Let’s go back to this article.  At the end, the writer makes a pitch for publishers to let readers discover other crime tales that lay outside of those that lean on gritty realism.  Tales that are farcical, tragic, even strange.  Sure, why not?

Both articles are fun, well written, educational reads.  We just disagree with grand, sweeping statements–be it the dying myth of a character or the honesty of crimes in fiction.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

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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

Posted in How to Write a Dick excerpts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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