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In a continuing series of features from our authors, Jerry Kennealy writes about the Difference between a Fictional and a So-Called Real Life Private Investigator.

Jerry Kennealy

What’s the difference between a fictional and a so-called real life private investigator?

I’ve been asked this question often. I was a licensed private investigator in San Francisco for more than twenty-five years, and there are a few things that I see as being different.

• Client base. I envied all of those fictional PIs (my Nick Polo included) who were able to take a single case and run with it for days or weeks. To stay in business, a private investigator needs multiple clients, and works on several cases at the same time. Like all small businessman, there are bills to be paid: rent, phone, a secretary and the cash that goes out for “confidential information.”

I still enjoy rereading Raymond Chandler, with Marlowe alone in his office, putting a dent in the office bottle and waiting for someone to drop in with a case. In real life if there’s no work, you go out and “buy it.” I’d provide martinis, wine, and crab salads to clients and sure enough, a job would pop out of their briefcase.

• The use of computers. I know a few active PIs, and they admit that they seldom even leave the office. Ninety percent of their work is done via their computers. There are databases that cater to investigators. Boring work that would make for a boring book.

Prior to computer hackers, there were people who called themselves “information brokers,” and, for a price, they could get you all kinds of information: DMV records. Driver’s license photographs. Local, state and federal criminal records. Credit records, telephone records. There was one guy who was peddling IRS records. I never did any business with him. He ended up in federal prison and the private investigators who used his services lost their licenses.

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