One of the things that make PI sleuths different to cops or amateur sleuths is that PIs are in business for themselves. Cops of course are paid to be cops. They’re assigned to cases; sometimes they ask to be put on a case. But they don’t need a client base. Neither do amateur sleuths, who often have full-time jobs. But PIs have to consider the ‘business’ aspects of what they do as well as solve cases. And most PIs are not wealthy people. Their client base grows very slowly and often by word of mouth. Even if they advertise and begin to build a reputation, it’s usually local and it doesn’t mean they’ve got a world-class list of wealthy and generous clients. So it’s always interesting to see how authors of PI crime novels handle the very real fact that private investigation is as much as anything else, self-employment.
As we learn in The Musgrave Ritual, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes began to build his client base while he was a university student. His fellow students learned about him and his methods and a few hired him. Here is what Holmes says about the matter:
‘The third of these cases was that of the Musgrave Ritual, and it is to the interest which was aroused by that singular chain of events, and the large issues which proved to be at stake, that I trace my first stride towards the position which I now hold.
Reginald Musgrave is a ‘blueblood’ and he’s well-connected, so when Holmes successfully solves the mystery of two missing household staff members and a cryptic ritual, word spreads quickly. Since that time, people in all sorts of powerful positions consult Holmes.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has also built his client base through word of mouth. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he solves the murder of his benefactor Emily Inglethorp and word spreads. In The Murder on the Links, he has already built a reputation. In fact, that’s in part why Paul Renauld hires him. Renauld and his family live in Merlinville-sur-Mer in France, so when Renauld writes to Poirot, asking for help, Poirot and Captain hastings travel to Merlinville. By the time they get there Renauld has been murdered, so Poirot and Hastings investigate the death. In that novel there’s talk of newspaper stories of the earlier case (the Inglethorp murder) and although Christie isn’t specific, it’s clear that that case ‘made’ Poirot’s reputation.
Most PIs don’t have such a wealthy and well-placed client base as Poirot does. For instance, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski builds her client base little by little, and because she has a passion for putting things right – for social justice – she hasn’t exactly won the hearts of Chicago’s richest and most powerful. What’s more, since fans will know that this series takes place before recent developments such as the Internet, Warshawski is limited in the advertising she can do. So at first, her client list isn’t long and her career isn’t lucrative. In fact, in Indemnity Only, we learn that
‘I usually only pay bills the third time they come around. If they want the money badly, they won’t forget you.’
She lives in a modest apartment and her office is hardly deluxe. But that makes sense for a PI who is just starting to build her business. As the series goes on, she gets more of a reputation but it’s interesting to see how she starts out.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee has an innovative way of building his business. He doesn’t really call himself an ‘official’ PI. He considers himself a ‘salvage consultant.’ He generally gets cases not from advertising or even being listed in a telephone directory but often through people he knows. For instance, in The Deep Blue Goodbye he’s approached by a friend, dancer/choreographer Chookie McCall, who is concerned about one of the members of her dance troupe Catherine Kerr. Kerr has had something stolen from her and is in real need, so she wants it back. The odd thing is, she’s not even sure exactly what was stolen. More as a favour than for any other reason, McGee starts to investigate. He finds out what exactly was stolen and when it’s recovered, he arranges to take half of its value in payment. Kerr agrees and that sets a precedent for this series. McGee’s rather low-key about the business end of what he does, but his wants are few and he has real compassion for the people he helps.
And then there’s Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. She knows that overcharging isn’t exactly going to get her a long client list. So she keeps her fees reasonable. And that’s exactly the reason for which Christine Arvisais hires her in Blood and Groom. Arvisais’ former fiancé Gordon Hanes (with whom she broke up shortly before their planned wedding) has been shot. Although she hasn’t been charged with the crime, Arvisais says that there’s a lot of gossip that she’s guilty and she wants to quell the rumours. So she hires Jackson and tells her bluntly that she’s hired her because Jackson is
‘…all I can afford.’
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s honest, and it shows that PIs really do have to think about such things as what they’ll charge.
And it’s realistic and refreshing to have a PI who’s comfortable with that aspect of the job. For example, as we learn in Amuse Bouche, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is
‘…not a dawdler when it comes to business.’
He’s not at all what you’d call money-hungry. But he’s a businessperson who does what he does to earn a living. So when successful entrepreneur Harold Chavell hires him to find Chavell’s missing fiancé Tom Osborn, Quant is quite forthright about his fees and expectations. At first, Quant thinks this case is a matter of a trip to France, where Chavell believes Osborn has gone. When Osborn later turns up dead, right in Saskatoon, the case takes on a whole new dimension and Quant ends up having to clear his client’s name of the suspicion of murder.
Dealing with the business end of being a PI isn’t exactly the most exciting part of the job. But any real-life PI will tell you that it matters. So it adds a realistic dimension to a PI story when there’s a little business mixed in with the…business.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Rocket Man.