What are the differences in real-life vs. fictional private investigators? This is something I get asked about often (being a mystery writer), as I’ve been working as a full-time private investigator for around four years now, so I wanted to write a post on the subject. Keep in mind that this post could run on for thousands of words, but I’ve done my best to keep it concise and on topic.
The question generally takes the some form of what the differences are between real-life and fictional private investigators, or if my life is like the movies. Other forms of the question run into the realm of asking if there are unrealistic aspects of P.I. books that bother me or make it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. People also ask if I use my real-life work in my fiction (the answer is NO on that last question, that would be a violation of my clients’ trust).
I’d like to provide a few minor distinctions, so here we go.
When it comes to a fictional private investigator’s aesthetic style, they’re often clad in fancy suits or bright clothing, full of swagger and other attention-drawing attributes. But for real-life private investigators, investigative work is all about discretion. Though there are times we don suits or fancy, bright clothing to openly draw attention to ourselves or establish prestige, for most real-life private investigators, our day-to-day working aesthetic is… understated.
Personally, I wear dark, casual (though still professional) clothing without visible logos, including normal blue jeans and plain-colored running shoes. Hoodies are a big part of my surveillance attire, as they are comfortable and provide an option to quickly cover my face. I usually keep a bag of alternate shirts and other clothing in my vehicle, including workout gear and various winter and summer hats, for when I’m working surveillance. My glasses are as much a prop as a seeing utensil, and I only dress a bit nicer when I’m planning to canvass or conduct interviews.
This is because I am often following subjects into and out of multiple public establishments or into close quarters, and the occasional changed shirt, added hat, or pair of glasses, or all of the above, can go a long way toward avoiding recognition. Investigators who look like they are on the job in these situations, well, look like they are on the job. Many of the best P.I.s I know look more like soccer moms and dads. They’re the last people you would expect to see following you.
Our vehicles are far from fancy
The same goes for my vehicle, understated is the name of the game. I have a great fictional example here of where fictional and real-life detectives depart from each other in a major way. One of my all-time favorite fictional private investigators is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole. I’ve read the entire series, and I am one of the first people to purchase a new installment when it arrives.
Fans of the series will recall that Elvis drives a yellow corvette and wears Magnum P.I.-style Hawaiian shirts. And his partner, Joe Pike, drives a red jeep and almost always has his badass shoulder tattoos, red arrows pointing forward, visible. Both are still able to follow subjects often and with near impunity without being noticed. Pike, in particular, is constantly described as being visually distinct and very recognizable. That works fine for fictional private investigators.
Unfortunately, real life does not work like that. These vehicles and wardrobes, by color, model, and style, would massively increase an investigator’s chances of getting “burned” (alerting the subject to the surveillance unintentionally) because, well, all are eye-catching and relatively rare to see on the streets. They’re memorable, and that is the last thing a good investigator wants to be when acting in a covert manner.
In real life, there are a number of techniques I use when following subjects to both stay close and be discreet, but those will likely have little benefit if I am in a vehicle or clothing that catches the eye and, perhaps more importantly, the memory. It takes a lot of skill, but that skill is predicated on a base level of discretion.
Important to point out that Robert Crais likely crafted these details to make memorable characters. Elvis and Pike need to be memorable to READERS.
In my private work, I drive a dark grey, small SUV (I’ll withhold naming the model for discretionary purposes). My front side windows are tinted as dark as most people’s back windows, and my back windows are limo tinted, including the rear windshield. The tint makes it harder to see me in the vehicle and provides a discreet place to hide if needed.
I picked the vehicle I drive specifically because, when viewed from the front (which is the view someone I’m following has), it is hard to tell if the vehicle is a car or an SUV. The grey is hardly eye-catching, either. In fact, people’s eyes go right past it to the vehicles with more color, or more distinct style. My vehicle is… forgettable. And that’s the point. There is an awful lot of intentional placement to giving subjects a revolving view of me that is hard to remember, but that is fodder for another post.
Real-life private investigators are rarely the booze hounds that fictional private investigators are
In detective fiction, the P.I. is often an all-day booze hound, drinking his or her way through a case, when they’re not getting sapped or laid out in some dark alley. In real life, private investigators are hardly the textbook hard drinkers you see in books or the movies.
Most investigation work requires the investigator to have his or her wits about them in situations ranging from complicated to outright dangerous. Tiny mistakes can be very costly in this business. Lose a subject, go home, forego some level of pay. Handle an interview poorly or unprofessionally, and you are likely to come away with bad information. You might even harm your client’s legal case. This has huge implications for your ability to obtain future work from that client.
Fail to read a situation right before placing yourself in it, and you could get injured or killed. Reputation matters. A lot. So does safety. The only backup I can call in the field is 911. I always act accordingly, and yes, I am generally (and legally) armed.
Far from drinking on the job, real-life P.I.s are more likely to be snacking in the car between interviews. Or listening to podcasts to pass the time out on surveillance. Even after work, most of us tend to keep the alcohol intake lower than you might expect. Morning comes early in this job. Those early mornings can turn into long days, sometimes in the range of 15-18 hours. That’s a tall order with a hangover, so I rarely over-indulge. Competence is currency in this business. There is nothing more competence-shattering than intoxication and hangover.
Crossover between real-life vs. fictional private investigators
There is one spot where I feel real-life private investigators and fictional private investigators have plenty of crossover. Both struggle with a balance between personal and professional life. In books, the detective often lives and breathes a case, focusing exclusively on it day and night.
Real life investigative work is also similarly demanding. We spend lots of time sitting in cars, working in interview rooms, and creeping in public spaces as we work. It takes mounds of boring research and foot work to put even small things together sometimes. It is draining, and if you let it, it can consume your entire day (and night).
But, at least in my case, I go out of my way make time for the other things I love. Without them, my life ends up out of balance, and the quality of my work suffers. Very few people in this business can avoid burnout without hobbies and other aspirations outside of the industry.
For me, that means my obsession with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And riding my various bikes (mountain and road). Also, my love of writing and reading. Without these activities, I can go days or weeks without interacting with the people in my social spheres. I do all as often as possible, and I take days off consistently to pursue them.
Looking for an example of a realistic fictional private investigator?
If you’d like to see how I approach P.I. character development in my own writing, I highly recommend my latest novel (coming out May 12), Throwing Off Sparks. It features my first series character, the tough and talented East Texas female private investigator, Riley Reeves. The book’s plot pounds as much pavement as most thrillers. Much of the work Riley does is very close to the way I handle my own work in real life. And be sure to join my email list using the form below for tips, tricks, and special offers on my work!