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.
• Guns. Most fictional PIs carry a gun, most in the business do not. One of the problems is E&O, Errors and Omissions insurance, which protects you from claims made by clients for supposed negligence. If you carry a weapon, the insurance rate soars. And if you ever had to use the weapon, there is a very good chance that there could be some type of claim made against you. Look what happens to cops carrying them in the line of duty.
That said, there were times when I did carry a weapon. I started with my police department .38 with a 3-inch barrel, moved to a .38 snub nose and finally to a Beretta .25. The smaller, and lighter, the better.
One thing that rings true with fiction is the PI having a law enforcement background before being licensed. It helps if you’ve been a cop when trying to pry some info or a report from a police official.
Another advantage of having a police background is that a few years spent in a radio car really helps in developing communication skills, which are needed when meeting with the public—sometimes under violent conditions, other times in situations when compassion is needed, such as being the first responder who counsels a victim of a rape, child molestation, robbery or a serious accident.
There has been a lot written about police officers not cooperating with a retired cop who has gone over to the dark side—become a private eye; however, as long as I wasn’t investigating a case involving a fellow police officer or some real heinous criminal, I’d get some cooperation. And it didn’t hurt that a lot of detectives I’d interviewed planned to go for a PI license after they retired.
My workload was roughly civil cases 80%, criminal cases 20%, and the clients were mainly attorneys or insurance carriers, and they had something in common—slow pay. A great many of the civil cases I worked were related to criminal acts: rapes, wrongful deaths, murders, arson and missing persons. Without a doubt, the most interesting, lucrative, and dangerous assignments I worked came via a private client. When someone gets into trouble, they usually run to an attorney, not a PI. The attorney brings the investigator into the case.
To be any good at the job, a private investigator has to get information from people who have no interest in talking to him, something that involves patience and an occasional bribe: drinks, cash, lunch, dinner, or boxes of See’s candy. You knock on a door: “I know I’m bothering you, but…” Hold out the box of candy, and you’re inside. It worked for me many times.
I knocked on hundreds of doors, and despite all the common-sense warnings about never opening your door to a stranger, it always amazed me, when after knocking, there would be a stern voice. “Who is it?”
Now, these people had no idea of who Jerry Kennealy was, but they would always open the door. I think that if I’d said, “The Boston Strangler,” they still would have opened that door. “Oh come right in, Mr. Strangler.”
Just as in fiction, a private investigator has to commit misdemeanors and an occasional felony to get the results wanted. I still wake up sweating when thinking of some of the elaborate pretexts I used.
Looking back, it was a terrific experience, but, as in fiction, there were many nervous moments: long nights, dark alleys, and since most of the people I was investigating were in some way on the wrong side of the law, the possibility of physical conflict. Then there was the tension of testifying in court, the attorneys loved to sweat a private eye, and most of them were very good at that. There were visits to San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, and local jails for interviews. A lot of the incidents, and the involved dialogue, went into my books, sometimes word for word. I never knew what a day would bring, and who I’d be meeting with: judges, attorneys, bartenders (a lot of those), bookies, bankers, hookers, cops, DAs, the rich, the poor, and the in-betweens.
There were cases where I received some real satisfaction by helping someone who really needed help. One day there was a call on my answering machine from a man with a cracked voice saying he had to see me. He left a name, Ron, and an address. I’d never heard of him, but the pain in his voice was enough to get me out to see him.
Ron was a 77-year-old retired merchant marine with liver cancer, under hospice care, who wanted me to find his daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. The girl was three days old when he kissed her goodbye, before sailing away. Now he was dying, and wanted to make sure his daughter inherited his estate, which was worth a hundred thousand or so. The mother—they were never married—had a very common last name, which didn’t help. The girl had been born in Redwood City, CA. The birth certificate gave me the child’s name, Maria, and an old, very old, Palo Alto address. I worked the address, which lead to others, and in two days, after dishing out See’s boxes to neighbors, librarians, and court clerks, I learned that the mother had died, but I found Maria, living in Beverly Hills, with her second very wealthy husband.
I’ll never forget her response after I identified myself and told her about her father. “Bullshit!” The two of them did get together shortly before Ron died.
Those are the ones you remember.