Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe, Inspector Clouseau…the private investigator has long been rich fodder for books, films and TV programmes. Agatha Christie’s creations have become well-loved and respected; the bumbling Clouseau is greeted with affection and amusement; Marlowe is the epitome of the brooding, tough PI effortlessly attracting beautiful women, and Holmes is viewed as the superbrained daddy of the detectives.
But in reality, the private investigator rarely merits such positive views.
By and large, public opinion of private investigators has never been great. Shady, dodgy characters, operating unscrupulously from smoke filled offices, is a commonly-held, stereotypical image.
For the 21st century PI, overcoming these stereotypes is not easy.
Part of the problem is that anyone can set themselves up as a private investigator. There is little in the way of industry regulation, and it’s a profession which attracts those thinking they can make a fast buck. We know of so many alleged investigators who promise the earth, charge a fortune, and rarely deliver results. Moreover, there are many who do not even operate within the law.
Private Investigator is not a job that you will find on the list of those offered by school careers’ advisers. It’s not something you can take an A level in or study at university. The fact is, no one really sets out to become a PI.
So what does the modern private investigator actually do, and what skills do you need to do it?
Our day-to-day job varies enormously from one day to the next. We might be working for a large multi-national corporation carrying out due diligence prior to them signing a major new contract; we might be carrying out surveillance on an errant partner; we might be spending hours trawling civil records trying to piece together a family tree; we might be following a paper trail in order to trace hidden assets; we might be interviewing people trying to establish new evidence for a court case – very often we can be doing all of this simultaneously.
We like to think of ourselves primarily as problem solvers. Perhaps the term Investigative Researchers might be more apt than Private Investigators – and perhaps it might do something to improve the industry’s reputation.
Many people often say to us “oh I’d be a good detective, I know lots and I’m very nosy”. In fact, the best investigators are those who dislike not knowing something. To be a good investigator, you need a range of skills. You have to understand people, you have to be tenacious, you have to be patient, you have to have an eye for detail, you have to be able to assimilate a lot of facts very quickly, you have to be an actor, you have to be a good listener, you have to be pragmatic, you have to think on your feet, you have to be creative – and that’s before you even start to learn how to do the job properly.
We employ excellent investigators who come from a variety of backgrounds. We have those who started out working on building sites, and those with degrees who speak several languages. The skillsets our investigators have are unique, and each can do something the other can’t.
But what all our investigators have in common is the ability to think in a different way, and that’s not something that can be taught. Yes, experience plays a part, but you need that innate way of thinking that sets you apart from the rest. And very few people have that. This is perhaps why there are so may poor investigators out there, and why the profession is much maligned.
The analogy of a private investigation being like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle, is often bandied about. In fact, it is more like trying to complete a jigsaw when you have three different puzzles mixed up in the same box.
Of course, for the 21st century PI, the internet has made life a lot easier. What once took days now takes minutes. The wealth of freely available information has meant that a lot of investigations now take place sitting at a desk rather than pounding the streets. Technology has changed the profession immeasurably, dragging it sometimes reluctantly into the digital age.
But fear not dear reader. Although here at Anderson Chance we pride ourselves on being the best in the business, the spirit of Philip Marlowe lives on – our best work is often done in the wee small hours over a single malt and a cigar. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.