March 21, 2001

By Bob Stevens

As a private investigator, Iím often asked, "Is it like on TV?" My usual answer? "Yep. Exactly. Didnít you see the Ferrari? The babes?" The truth? Yep. Exactly. Every once in a while. For just a minute.

For mystery writers and fans, the good news is that there is nothing you will ever read or write that hasnít been done, or at least tried, by some P.I. somewhere at some time. Like a writer, the greatest asset an investigator can have is his imagination. Just about every day heís asked to do something heís never done before, and probably hasnít the foggiest notion how to do. He will improvise, so anythingís possible. Mostly, though, we ask questions and take notes. And different techniques go in and out of fashion.

When teaching new operatives, Iíve often said I can get anyone to tell me anything; all I have to do is figure out who theyíd tell, and become that person. Thatís called a pretext interview. Itís a technique thatís become unpopular of late. We love watching Rockford do it, but we hate when itís done to us.

Another question Iím frequently asked is, "How does someone become a private eye?"

The answer is that it varies greatly. Many are former civilian or military law enforcement officers. Some began as insurance adjusters or investigators. And some just answered a newspaper ad for a trainee. One P.I. of my acquaintance was hired to paint a guyís boat. The guy turned out to be a private investigator, and he liked the kid, so he offered him a full-time job with his agency.

My own career began in 1966, when I went to work for a mercantile credit reporting agency. I eventually became their Special Investigator, reporting on commercial frauds and organized crime. Feeling like pretty hot stuff because I got to sniff around in the mafiaís business, I took the test and picked up my private investigators license in 1973. A few years later, I struck out on my own.

Before starting my own agency, I used to tell people the difference between real and fictional private eyes was real P.I.s donít investigate murders. The first two cases I worked as a free-lancer were murder investigations. As a one-man operator, I soon learned that many private detectives, myself included, must do many different types of investigations to put food on the table. Others specialize. Most of us do make the distinction, however, that what we do must be legal. I donít go to jail for anybody.

I also taught investigations and security at a couple of business colleges, held management positions with security firms and a larger investigation agency, and served three terms as a District Governor of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. I was even a cruise ship investigator for a while.

For the last few years, Iíve specialized in medical malpractice and other healthcare-related insurance claims. Fortunately for me, the term healthcare-related can extend from overdosing a patient to stealing her silverware, and everything in between, so it never gets dull. As I said, I ask questions and take notes. Every case is a story, every story a mystery.

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In this column, Iím going to give you the opportunity to ask the questions. Send me questions related to the field of private investigations, and Iíll try to answer them. If I donít have the answers, Iíll ask around. Or maybe Iíll make something up. Did I mention I also write fiction?

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Question: Just wanted to ask you what you considered to be the most important equipment for a new private investigator to have.

Investigator: The most important piece of equipment is a telephone, followed by a pen, a notepad, a car, a camera and a tape recorder, in that order. Most of us get by for a whole career with only that equipment, and maybe a computer for reports, but I know many investigators who simply call in their reports to a typing service. While some investigators have special equipment like surveillance vans, night vision goggles, de-bugging equipment, etc., those things aren't essentials for most types of investigations. Internet information sources are becoming increasingly helpful for locating people and looking up public records, but many investigators still prefer to go to the agency and review the reports rather than relying on computerized sources.

The thing to keep in mind is private investigators mostly interview people and report. If doing insurance investigations (which is what employs most of us), we inspect accident scenes and vehicles and take photos. Few carry guns, and even fewer ever have occasion to use them.

THROUGH A PRIVATE EYE DARKLY is a column dedicated to questions regarding private investigation. Please send questions to and please understand that Bob may not be able to answer each and every question though every effort will be made in that endeavor.

Denise Baton

Copyright © 2001 Robert A. Stevens