Do Private Eyes Solve Murders? by Colleen Collins

Today I’m pleased to welcome to the blog double-threat author/private investigator Colleen Collins. I’ll be reviewing Colleen’s book, The Zen Man, tomorrow, but today she’s going to talk a little about how a private investigator’s work meshes with law enforcement in the real world.

Colleen Collins“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.

Zen Man by Colleen CollinsIf a PI Is Charged with Murder, Can the PI Investigate His/Her Own Case?

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.

Colleen Collins is a PI by day, a multi-published author by night. Her articles on private investigations have appeared on various sites on the Internet as well as in PI Magazine, Pursuit Magazine, and other publications. Her accomplishments as a PI include uncovering bogus identities, locating an abducted child, catching cheating spouses, and taking videos of an injury claimant throwing a burning fastball. A member of the Private Eye Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Novelists, Inc., Colleen has written 20 novels for both Harlequin and Dorchester and has spoken at regional and national conferences about writing private eyes in fiction. To learn more about Colleen, visit her website.


  • andrei

    April 2, 2012 - 9:38 PM

    Excellent Move of hiring a Private Investigator! That would surely solve the case! I really have great respect for Private Investigators! Their knowledge and skill in solving problems are awesome! Words are not enough to explain their ingenuity!

  • Shannon

    February 28, 2012 - 1:08 PM

    Do you think being a woman PI is an advantage or a disadvantage in any way, or does it make no difference?

    • Colleen Collins

      February 29, 2012 - 10:52 AM

      Hi Shannon,

      Re: your question >>Do you think being a woman PI is an advantage or a disadvantage in any way, or does it make no difference?<<

      It all depends on the case. Sometimes it's better for a male PI to handle a case, and sometimes a woman is better suited. As to personally do I think it's an advantage to be a female PI, yes. IMHO, women are often better listeners, and they process details quickly into an integrated whole.

      Thanks for your questions.

  • Lucious Lamour

    February 27, 2012 - 4:55 PM

    You bio says you helped locate an abducted child. Any details you can share about that?

    Looking forward to the review tomorrow.

    • Colleen Collins

      February 27, 2012 - 5:45 PM

      Hello, Lucious. To answer your question:

      Approximately 6 years ago, our clients (grandparents who had custody of their grandchild) called us, terrified, because their 5-year-old granddaughter was missing. We were in rush-hour traffic, but we drove as quickly as possible to an address we found (via the Internet) where she had last been seen. It’s a long story, so I’ll cut to the chase — after a lot of door knocking and phone calls, we eventually jumped into a dumpster to look for any clues to her whereabouts…and we found items that belonged to the little girl (verified by the grandparents) and a return address label that led to our eventually locating her, hours later, 2,000 miles away.

      The little girl was safe, I’m happy to say, and returned to her grandparents. They sent us a picture of her that we keep over our work computer to this day.

      Thanks for your question. It’s one of our happier stories.

      • Lucious Lamour

        February 28, 2012 - 10:47 AM

        Very cool. Thanks!

  • […] Today at Elizabeth A. White’s blog, Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’s PI Colleen Collins has posted a guest article that responds to novelist Ed McBain’s comment “The last time a private eye solved a murder was never.”; An excerpt from the post “Do Private Eyes Solve Murders?” is below; to read the full article, click here. […]

  • Colleen Collins

    February 27, 2012 - 11:51 AM

    There are times when law enforcement gets a little tense, but this reaction comes mostly from their being inconvenienced by our presence in a case. Otherwise, our experience with law enforcement has been positive or at least grudgingly cordial. Most experienced law enforcement personnel are mature enough to understand that both sides are just “doing their jobs.”

  • Charles Wingfield

    February 27, 2012 - 10:43 AM

    Have you personally ever had a case where the police were hostile to your presence / involvement?