Not too long after the first private investigation firm, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, gained worldwide success, so did their fictionalized counterparts. From its inception in 1850 to today’s Sherlock infatuation, the idea of the private detective has inspired generations.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Holmes and Watson caught the world’s attention, detective novels, serials, radio, and then television became an integral part of our shared culture. From the Pink Panther’s Det. Jacques Clouseau to the flawed Ret. Det. Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, private investigation seems a rife creative arena for writers and movie-makers to explore.
So why did private investigation become the career of choice for some of the world’s most iconic characters, and how does this compare to the reality of an actual private investigator (PI)?
Here’s what the media isn’t telling you.
The Awe (Ha!) Factor
Private investigation is a job that provides plenty of content for stories while allowing the audience to participate in solving the underlying mystery. These are positions of power that can provide delineation between right or wrong, good or evil, and all the shades of grey in between. The audience is simultaneously enraptured, enthralled, and scared by these stories which involve elements of danger and suspense. This combination of mystery, heroism, and justice provides wish fulfillment for the audience all from the comfort of their couches.
Living Inside the Law
Of course, real-life PI’s are not the dark, noir-esque heroes with a penchant for breaking and entering that audiences imagine them to be. Private investigators are dissimilar from heads-of state and law enforcement figures because they are considered private citizens. A PI who is found guilty of planting recording devices on personal property faces the same jail time as any other lawbreaker. As private citizens, PIs aren’t given additional legal privilege like those who work in the public sector – that means no Robert Downey Jr.-era Holmes inflicting high kicks on those in his way. At least, not without potential assault and battery charges.
Though reality may not be as glamorous as the PI of our cultural imaginings, another aspect of their wide-spread appeal is their relatability.
There are advantages to telling a story from the POV of an all-powerful emperor or ruthless serial killer, but relating to mainstream audiences isn’t one of them. As a regular citizen, PIs walk the line between a crime fighter and “normal” person (albeit usually one with a few deep, dark secrets). This connects the audience with the character, as they identify with an investigator finding success through intellect instead of power.
A Million Suspenseful Variations on the Truth
As time and technology has changed, so have detective stories. Private investigation media has moved to incorporate the real-life work of a typical investigator, bringing more diverse characters, new perspectives, and fresh plotlines. Yet, the truth about private investigation is still shrouded in Hollywood starlight and suspense-driven misinformation. Investigators in modern fiction are still often taken to sensationalistic extremes by their authors – so much so that a PI becomes akin to an anti-hero Marvel character, as opposed to an actual person (i.e., Sherlock “Ironman” Holmes).
What you should know is that real-life PIs are less dangerous, deadly, and dashing than you probably think.
Being a “real” person is not just a trope of the detective genre, it’s the truth in both fiction and real life. Although fictionalized takes on the profession of private investigation will (and should) continue, knowing the truth about a PI’s function and capability are essential if you find yourself needing their vital and real-life services.