Private Eye, Public Ear
Are watching you.
When I was 14 I wanted to be a private investigator. I had watched television shows about them — Simon & Simon; Rockford Magnum, P.I. — and it was clear from my research that this was an exciting job with shootouts, fistfights, sexy women, and fast cars. The P.I.s on television weren't like the adults I knew: They were sardonic; they charmed information out of people; they picked locks. P.I.s were on the right side of the law, but just barely.
After graduating high school my P.I. fantasy was replaced with others, and more than 20 years passed before an attorney friend of mine asked me to do some criminal defense investigation work for him. Suddenly I had a new job. One day I was the facilities manager at a small acupuncture college; the next I was a licensed investigator with several incarcerated clients to interview.
My new job quickly dispelled any romantic notions I had about private eyes. For one thing, the police frown upon people picking the locks of homes they do not own: it's called criminal trespass, and possibly burglary. The things that Thomas Magnum did on a typical case (assault, intimidation, unlawful discharge of a firearm) would put him away for two to six years in a medium security facility, where good-looking men like Magnum are in high demand. Also, after three years as a P.I., I have yet to be involved in a fistfight, my car is still a 7-year-old Chevy, and I don't even own a gun. Sexy women? Have you ever seen a 50-year-old assistant D.A?
In reality, most of the hours in a private investigator’s life are spent sitting in cars, talking to people, and typing. These are the workday activities of a newspaper reporter, social worker, public health nurse, and, for that matter, a cab driver writing a pornographic novel. Unlike fictional P.I.s, real private dicks, gumshoes, and shamuses are not loners enforcing a moral code; they are something akin to a 19th-century English parson, traveling the countryside attending to people.
In other words, real P.I.s listen. In fact, listening has turned out to be my most important job skill, and today I view private investigators not as violent and sarcastic but as bearing witness to other people’s life stories.
Like cops and social workers, private eyes are involved in people’s lives at unusual times. P.I.s knock on your door, talk to you about some personal aspect of your life, then disappear. P.I.s are momentary representations of a communal authority — not quite cop, not quite priest. People talk to investigators probably because they know they will never see the investigator again. This is why the best P.I.s are the best listeners, the ones who make a person feel like the most fascinating and important individual in the world.
Sometimes this simply means hearing a baffled and overwhelmed defendant complain about the poor choices he has made, or about his desire to clean up for the sake of his child, or about how the other guy had it coming. Sometimes it means something else, a choice to be made about getting involved.
I once took a job locating somebody’s birth daughter. The man was 35 and had gotten his girlfriend pregnant while in college, and then panicked. His girlfriend gave the child up for adoption and my client ran off and tried to ignore the guilt until he couldn’t anymore. When he contacted me, he wanted to apologize to his ex-girlfriend and make himself available to his birth daughter, should she want to contact him. This was a man in a lot of pain, trying to atone for his past actions. When neither his ex-girlfriend nor his daughter wanted to speak to him, he wept over the phone and asked me what to do.
I thought: “How the hell should I know? I’m not a therapist.”
But by that time I had figured out that being an investigator is almost like being a therapist. We both listen to people’s secrets. In this case, I did what seemed to be common sense.
“Write them each an apology,” I advised. “I’ll forward the letters for you. They can contact you when they’re ready.”
That time I knew what to do. Most of the time, when I hear heart-wrenching tales, I’m not so sure. We are all the stars of our own stories, and all of our subjective realities bang and collide against each other all day, every day, like atoms in a particle accelerator, sometimes leading to atomic bombs and sometimes to elegant theories of existence. Our justice system is supposed to pick through all these colliding atomic storylines and choose the parts that seem most accurate, and it is private investigators who play the part of the white-coated lab technicians, observing each swiftly-moving particle of story told by each self-interested individual.
This can be confusing. I had one case where the victim claimed that my client burst into his apartment alone, ski-masked and armed to the teeth, while my client described visiting the apartment with a friend to buy some stolen stereo equipment, being welcomed inside and offered snacks while the stereo was brought downstairs. Most of the time the difference between the accounts is less dramatic: somebody stood here instead of there, somebody said this instead of that, X threw the first punch, Y threw the first punch. People talk about the incident I’m investigating and when they are done, they keep talking about other things which they feel the need to tell somebody about. A good investigator listens because he or she might hear something useful, and people keep talking because somebody is listening.
In P.I. fiction, investigators seek out hidden truths — Phillip Marlowe uncovered the tragic lives of wealthy families in Southern California; Sam Spade exposed sentimentality and corruption. Real investigators, by listening, uncover the mess of contradictions that make up real life.
On one of my first cases, I drove to a small rural town where a witness was known to have worked at a pizza restaurant. She was no longer employed there, but a waitress described her brother’s house to me. I found it at the beginning of a muddy road, and when he answered the door, began to explain who I was and why I was seeking his sister.
The brother said that he hadn’t seen his sister in a while, and that they weren’t that close. He went on to say that I might try calling their mother in Montana, and gave me her phone number. As he wrote down her information he kept talking—about his sister and himself, about how they were both no good, how they were fuck-ups, and how their mother had moved to Montana because she wanted to clean up her own life.
He handed me his mom’s information, and while looking at the floor, said that he hadn’t seen or talked to her in over a year.
“So if you call her,” he said, “would you mind just telling her that…that Billy loves her?”
I walked away with that scrap of paper in my pocket wondering what to do. I had promised Billy that I would pass on the message if I called his mom, and now I found myself hoping that I didn’t have to call her. Playing Dr. Phil in a family crisis was not what I signed up for when I got my investigator’s license. And what good would it do anyway? Love can’t be given through proxy. No, Billy’s problems were like those of most of my clients — intractable and unsolvable, at least by me.
Most of my clients are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most of my clients come from fatherless homes, live in poverty, have little education and lousy jobs. A 15-year-old boy I once had as a client dropped out of high school and sold marijuana to pay for food for his girlfriend and their baby while his mom was in California picking strawberries. He was accused of attempted murder after a drug deal went south. The girlfriend of a severely paranoid client wept when she told me that she wanted him to come home, even though my client had held a loaded pistol to her forehead because he believed that she was part of a joint Mafia-F.B.I. plot to kill him. A current client, accused of rape, likely has an organic brain disorder and cannot understand why he is in jail. He’s also clinically depressed because his ex-wife shot their son.
These people have problems that I cannot begin to address. I can act as their investigator. I can make sure that they are accused of the right crimes, that the witnesses saw what the D.A. says they saw, and I can double check all the facts and photograph the scene and examine the physical evidence. Sometimes I can find a useful witness the cops weren’t aware of, and every once in a while I can save an innocent person from spending time behind bars. But my clients’ crimes are just symptoms of their real problems, and with those I can’t help. All I can do is listen. Hopefully, sometimes, that’s enough. • 24 April 2008
Steve Wilson runs his own investigation agency in Portland, Oregon, focusing on criminal defense work.
Photo from istockphoto.com.