Being Realistic and Entertaining: A Look at Private Investigator Fiction

When you read or watch fiction involving private investigators, there are two main ways in which they’re unrealistic:

Illegal Activity

Most fictional PIs break the law in blatant ways. Regularly. Some examples:

  • Committing burglary.
  • Illegally hacking into people’s phones or online accounts.
  • Tampering with people’s mail.
  • Sneaking onto people’s property to take photos of them in private places.
  • Impersonating law enforcement.

While I have no doubt that there are some law-breaking PIs in real life, most are going to obey the law, because they would like to keep their license, stay out of jail, and avoid getting sued or having any evidence they provide tossed out of court.

Types of Cases

In fiction, the typical PI investigates murders. A number of them even work alongside the police. They show up to crime scenes, poke and prod the bodies, and stroll around casually dispersing their DNA everywhere.

In real life, private investigators rarely help with murder investigations. If they do, what usually happens is that the family of the victim is frustrated with the progress of the official police investigation. So the family hires a PI to review the evidence, talk to people (including people the police may have already interviewed), and use other tools in the PI arsenal to gather information. Maybe the PI will uncover a new lead or new evidence for the police to follow up on. But they won’t be hanging around the police detectives working on the investigation side-by-side with them.

Real-life cases that PIs work on often involve potentially false insurance claims and other kinds of fraud and dishonesty that are a part of white-collar crimes, civil litigation, or relationship conflicts. They may also help locate missing persons. Sometimes their work contributes to investigations of violent crime; it just isn’t as common.

Realistic Fictional Entertainment?

Are there PI stories that stay within the bounds of real-life legality – and that don’t always involve murder – while also being suspenseful and entertaining? To what extent do you need to bend the rules to keep a story gripping?

Years ago I watched Spotlight, a movie that doesn’t feature PIs but instead focuses on a group of journalists uncovering a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Something that struck me about this movie is how it depicts journalism realistically. The journalists don’t pull off any daredevil stunts, and there aren’t any wild action sequences. They do a lot of plodding investigative work, like searching through records for hours and persuading people to agree to interviews.

And yet, the movie is still suspenseful. It still has an underlying tension that carries it forward from one scene to another. You sense the high stakes that come with asking the right questions at the most opportune moment. You sense the complex emotions that the journalists feel when uncovering new information.

I’m interested in fiction that can more or less stay within the so-called boring rules of reality while still providing a great story and great characterizations. In the area of PIs, are there any fictional ones who are sticklers for the law while still pursuing complex and exciting cases?

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