“The last time a private eye solved a murder was never.” -Ed McBain *
Like many of you, I love a gritty, fast-paced private eye story where the shamus solves a grisly murder or two. Investigating death makes for compelling storytelling rift with bodies, suspects and clues. In my current novel The Zen Man, the private-eye protagonist must solve a murder in thirty days or face a life sentence behind bars.
But how true is it in real life that private investigators solve murders? Is Ed McBain right that the answer is never? I compiled a few popular theories on this topic — some from the Internet, others my PI-partner-husband and I have heard over the years – with analysis for each.
Theory #1: In stories, private eyes are often effective because they are less constrained by government rules than law enforcement. But in reality, law enforcement must be wary about endorsing a PI’s evidence because 1) it’s unknown what methods the PI used in obtaining that evidence (if the PI obtained the evidence through illegal means, it would be thrown out at trial), and 2) by accepting a PI’s evidence, the police could be seen as using the PI as a state agent (“acting under color of law”) and any improper behavior by the PI could be imputed to the police department.
Analysis: It’s true that PIs, who are civilians, are less constrained by government rules — for example, PIs are not bound to the same evidentiary laws as law enforcement. It’s an assumption, however, that an experienced PI, especially one who specializes in legal investigations, would use “unknown” methods for obtaining evidence. In our investigations agency, we’ve gathered evidence using established rules and procedures to establish chain of custody (documented procedures demonstrating how we got evidence from where it was to our evidence locker). These procedures guarantee reliability and have resulted in courtroom admissibility and victory for the lawyers who employed us.
The latter part of this theory also rings true: Law enforcement would be hesitant to use a PI as a state agent. However, private investigators can provide resources in both personnel number and expertise, and have successfully co-investigated cases with law enforcement. For example, in 2009, relatives of a slain Missouri couple hired private investigators to assist in the investigations that led to the arrest and charges of two murder suspects (“Niece applauds sheriff for accepting assistance in murder case”).
Theory #2: It costs too much for a private investigator to duplicate/go beyond the police routine. Who would pay for an amateur investigator when professionals are already on the case?
Analysis: As in the answer for above (Theory #1), sometimes citizens hire private investigators to complement law enforcement’s investigations. As to “amateur,” the majority of private investigators are retired law enforcement (or in our agency, one of the PIs has nearly 30 years experience in criminal justice and is also a licensed attorney). As to costing too much, private investigator rates vary across the country based on experience, region and background. In our state, for example, private investigators experienced in homicide investigations typically charge between $75 to $150 per hour.
Theory #3: The only murders PIs solve are cold cases. Families sometimes get fed up with lack of police involvement/interest and hire PIs to do the investigations.
Analysis: False that the only murders PIs might solve are cold cases. However, it’s sometimes true that families sometimes get frustrated with police involvement/interest and therefore hire PIs to conduct further investigations. Out of fairness to law enforcement, they often don’t have the manpower or time to handle the overwhelming number of cases that come into their jurisdictions.
Although not technically private investigators, there was a team of retired, non-commissioned law enforcement officers in Colorado Springs, Colorado who, because of their interest in solving cold cases, were nicknamed, by a sheriff’s department office manager, “The Apple Dumpling Gang” after the bumbling dimwits in the 1975 Disney movie. They were hardly dimwits. These old guys solved one of the deadliest serial murder cold cases in Colorado history.
Fiction is a ripe area for a private eye to investigator his/her own case. In my story The Zen Man, the PI-protagonist (Rick) investigates a murder for which he’s been charged. A lawyer pal chides him, “Stupid to investigate your own case, Rick.” However, as Rick’s a seasoned investigator and a former attorney, he knows the legal ropes. Although it wouldn’t be smart for Rick’s lawyer to put him on the stand because a defendant telling the jury what witnesses said they saw is like having the fox describe the henhouse. The workaround is for another investigator to primarily conduct witness interviews, at which Rick can also be present. Handily, Rick’s girlfriend Laura is that second investigator and the person who would testify about her investigative experiences before a real jury.
How about in real life? If a private investigator is charged with homicide, it’d have to be an exceptionally experienced PI to conduct investigations on his/her behalf. That PI’s lawyer would undoubtedly insist the accused not handle their own investigations, just as Rick’s lawyer initially did in The Zen Man.
In summary, as much as I revere Ed McBain, gotta say that the last time a private eye solved a murder might have been yesterday.
Thanks to Elizabeth for hosting my guest post today. I hope this information is useful for readers and writers alike.
* Quote from Ed McBain’s obit.