How do real private detectives compare with their fictional counterparts?

Posted on October 20th, 2013 by Sarah Gallienne

sherlock holmesMost of us have an image in our minds of what a private detective is.  We get this stereotypical image from watching films, TV or reading books. Few of us have not heard of Sherlock Holmes, Magnum, Jim Rockford or Philip Marlowe. In the world of fictional private detectives their clients employ them to find out information that the police have been unable to uncover or the clients might be nervous about going to the police.  Sometimes when the police have been involved the clients might be unhappy about the result so turn to private detectives in the hope of resolving something more satisfactorily.


Fictional clients of these stereotypical private detectives usually seek:

  • Something that has been lost or stolen
  • Definitive proof that a partner, husband or wife has been cheating
  • A friend or relative that is missing
  • Proof that an employee, business partner or friend is dishonest
  • The person that committed an unsolved crime

The work of real private detectives is not so different from their fictional counterparts

Many of the cases that are covered in books, films and on TV often surface in real life and although they may not be so dramatic the workload of real private detectives is not so different from their fictional counterparts.  Real private detectives are employed by a diverse range of clients to undertake searches for people who are missing, surveillance and skip traces (see our post on skip tracing), service of legal documents on people who need to know about legal proceedings against them, among many other tasks and duties.

The private investigator’s expertise will define their daily duties.  For example, private detectives who specialise in forensic accounting will not normally be found staking out hotels to prove infidelity of a spouse.

Private investigators gather facts and information

A large part of what all private investigators do is information and fact gathering and unlike their fictional counterparts, they do not rely solely on intuition or luck.  To successfully solve cases today’s private detectives need to analyse and form strategies when they have collected and organised the facts.

Before taking a case reputable, ethical and qualified private detectives will:

  • Have an in depth detailed consultation with a prospective client to establish whether the course of action the client wishes to take is legal and ethical and also to determine whether or not the case can be solved.
  • Work out a strategy and calculate a budget for handling the case and gathering the required information.
  • Conduct the investigation, ensuring that any evidence that is found can, if necessary, be presented in court if admissible.
  • Complete a full analysis of intelligence gathered.
  • Provide the client with a detailed report as to their findings.

Long hours spent on surveillance without a break

Anyone involved in research will know that on occasion it can be a long and tedious task.  It is no different for private detectives who solve their cases by using many different sources of information.  The most common source is surveillance which is fraught with difficulties and can involve long hours watching someone, with a camera ready to take important photographs, without a break.  If the target leaves a building, the private detective will follow and this requires skill and experience.  The target cannot be aware that he or she is being followed and the private detective can’t lose them.

Private detectives need people skills

Private detectives may also interview witnesses and suspects.  Generally, there is no legal obligation for a witness or suspect to talk to a private investigator so good private detectives also have great people skills.  The need to build a rapport with the person they want to interview in order to glean important information, sometimes with a person who might be reluctant to divulge what they know.

Private investigators know how to use public records to their client’s advantage

Valuable information can also be gained from public records.  Whilst public records are available to anyone, private detectives are skilled in knowing how to easily access the records and who to talk to if they have a query.  With sophisticated technology, some private detectives are able to search databases with multiple record sources which is not usually possible for members of the public to do.

Records searched by private detectives often include:

  • Electoral rolls
  • Court records
  • Vital statistics records
  • Registry of births, deaths and marriages
  • Property transactions
  • Business licenses

Part of a reputable private investigator’s training is to learn how to analyse and present the intelligence they have gathered to their clients, ensuring that such information can be used in court if admissible.

In conclusion, it would be reasonable to state that real private detectives are very much like their fictional counterparts but we don’t see too much of the administrative side of the work in films and televisions programmes.  Administrative work is a very important part of what real private detectives do in solving every case, such as searching records and gathering information.  And rarely are their lives as glamorous as those portrayed in books and films.

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