How Private Investigators Work

The stereotypical private investigator works in a poorly lit and cluttered office in a destitute part of town. It is there he greets various walk-in client’s with no time to discuss fees or god forbid, professional indemnity insurance. This ‘Sherlock Holmes’ would skulk off into the night to pursue his curious endeavours that would often get him into trouble with him barely escaping. However, eventually he would return to his distressed client after nabbing the cad.

Fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes have provided many people with the clear mental image of the stereotypical PI, even more modern day detectives such as Veronica Mars (although slightly quirkier) reinforce this idea. Despite not working in a mysterious neighbourhood or smoking a pipe like their aged counterparts they still appear to have a flair for detective work- even if they don’t label themselves as such.

Back in the real world, whereas 100 years ago there was quite possibly some link between fiction and reality, today there is little.  You have multi-functioning private detective agencies in high tec offices employing multi talented private investigators covering a very wide range of services. Any PI agency thinks hard and long about breaking any current legislation to achieve the result a client desires , even over the past 5 years the PI industry has moved forward incredibly, and today’s fictional characters such as “Vincent”, are a far cry from reality.

However, how much of this P.I. appearance is just a media induced façade? The events we witness in fiction never seem realistic or legal, so what is it to be a real private investigator and what does the job involve?

In order to decipher what differentiates fact from Sherlock we must define what a P.I. is. Fundamentally, private investigators are paid by people to gather information. As the name would suggest, they work privately for businesses or individuals unlike police detectives who work for the government. Because of this, they cannot arrest or prosecute criminals. Despite occasionally being used to help solve crimes either by the police or individuals, they are not enforces of the laws under the government.

Since the early 1800’s, Private Investigators have existed with the first known agency  “Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le commerce et l’Industrie” (“The Office of Universal Information For Commerce and Industry”) opening in France in 1833 by a solider named Eugene Francois Vidocq. After Vidoc’s revolutionary work, the industry was born and in 1850 the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was opened in the United States. Pinkerton became famous for foiling a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, breaking strikes and making the bold stance to hire Kate Warne in 1856 as the first female P.I. in America. As well as making many contributions to the investigating field, the Pinkerton agency is also responsible for the term ‘private eye’ which originated from the agency logo.

Most private investigators are self-employed, however some work for agencies or various security services. Often, investigators will specialise in certain areas by combining their current training and background education. However, regardless of their area of specialisation, the number one job of any P.I. is to conduct investigations within the boundaries of the law.