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Private Investigators - Movies vs. Reality

  • October 25, 2010
  • by Amanda Miller

When most of us hear private investigator, we picture the iconic Hollywood private eye with a black trench coat and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He's usually drinking a Scotch or a brandy or something on the rocks in a short glass. He's stoic and a bit disheveled, a rebel. He's someone with all the keen investigative skills of the finest police detective and none of the couth. He wouldn't fit into an organized police force.

While the image of the private investigator is burned eternally into our collective memories, it varies tremendously from what private investigators represent in real life. There are a number of myths that every fictional private eye since Sherlock Holmes has fortified. Those interested in becoming or working with a private investigator may be interested in knowing which of those movie myths are true and which ones are busted.

Movie myth #1
All private investigators are men

Busted: Of course women are private investigators. PI Magazine estimates that about 15 percent of the roughly 60,000 licensed real-life private investigators in the United States are women. The number has been on the rise over recent years, climbing steadily.

Movie myth #2
Private investigators are rebels without much use for manners. They're outsiders, tough guys like Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer who don't mince words, who say it like it is. Their personalities are serrated and rough and people don't much like them though they mysteriously respect them.

Busted: A private eye's job demands that he or she be likable and respectable. A PI has to be able to ask questions and get answers. The job, while it often does involve some stereotypical detective work like surveillance, requires solid interview and interpersonal skills. Private detectives have to be able to get the truth from the people they're working with. Being able to relate with them and ask the right questions is often more about finesse than aggression.

Movie myth #3
Private investigators can do everything a cop can do without the bothersome restraints and red tape police have to deal with.

Busted: While private investigators, depending on the cases their working, may not have to worry about how evidence was obtained in terms of admissibility in court, they do have to obey the law. They can't legally impersonate the air conditioning repair man in most cases, they can't break into peoples homes to snoop and they can't tap phone lines in most states. In most states, retaining someone against his will for questioning would be considered felony kidnapping. All states except Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Dakota require licenses.

Movie myth #4
Detectives are lonely guys who wait at their desks in smoky home offices waiting for a busty blond to walk through the door and ask him to investigate a steamy murder.

Busted: First, many private investigators work in detective firms, in slick offices where people wear suits and someone directs calls. Second, even those private eyes who work independently do more mundane work. They run background checks for employers and apartment complexes. They examine legal paperwork and help lawyers with civil and criminal cases. They offer premarital screening serves and investigate infidelity along with insurance claims and child custody cases.

The work of the private investigator is diverse and varied. But it almost never involves high-speed chases and gun battles.

Movie myth #5
P.I. work is rewarding, interesting and independent.

Confirmed: Private investigators have to be open to learning and researching new issues, interviewing subjects and getting to the truth. Every day is different and the workload changes regularly.

While the private investigators of the real world are just normal people in professional careers, the Hollywood image of Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson and Tom Selleck battling the dark side for justice and a paycheck are likely to endure.

Amanda Miller is a staff writer for

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