It’s Just My Job, Five Days a Week*

BusinessOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Sara Paretsky

30 responses to “It’s Just My Job, Five Days a Week*

  1. I noticed this in the Parnell Hall series about Stanley Hastings. He is really just an ambulance chaser (or assistant to one) but gets involved in investigating a crime in the books. (I guess, I have only read the first one.) But I don’t know how he supports his family in New York on what he gets for his “real” job.

    • Tracy – It’s interesting I think how some series focus at least somewhat on the practical earning-a-living aspects of sleuthing and some don’t. I’m not thoroughly familiar with the Hall series bit I think you’re right that it really doesn’t focus on the money issue.

  2. Some PIs do very well indeed, Margot – Nero Wolfe, for instance, who relies on a huge income to keep his brownstone running and Archie, Fritz and Theodore gainfully employed. In fact, Archie has to keep an eye on the boss’s books and goad Wolfe into taking new cases when the bank balance runs too low!

    • Les – Right you are indeed about Wolfe’s tastes. I find that appealing in the sense that it’s a delightful flaw if that makes sense. And yes, sometimes Archie does have to take Wolfe in hand when it’s time to fill the coffers…

  3. Petra

    One of the PI’s I love the most is still Matthew Scudder by Lawrence Block. Over years he works without a licence, gets work through friends and aquaintances, has a irregular income and gave for years ten percent of his income to the church because the AA-meetings, he attends, are often in churchrooms. Or the L.A.-Buddies Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, who are very different types and own together a PI-Agency (author of course Robert Crais).

    • Petra – I’m very glad you mentioned Matthew Scudder. He has a very interesting attitude towards what he does. Especially at the beginning of the series, he doesn’t see himself as in business. Instead, as he tells one of his clients,’sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’ And yes, he donates generously. And I’m glad you mentioned Scudder’s feelings about churches; I think it’s a fascinating part of his character that he stops into churches and lights candles too. And yet, he’s not a religiously observant person. Scudder is a really interesting character. I like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, too.

  4. Margot: Sue Grafton’s sleuth Kinsey Milhone always seems to be scrambling for money. Maybe she will get enough for a new little black dress before the end of the alphabet.

  5. We have a pair of PIs in Denver who have a blog and teach classes from time to time for writers. The reality of PI work is a lot less exciting that most fictional PIs…but who would want to read about a PI who did boring stuff all day long? 😀

    • Pat – That must be a really helpful class for writers, actually. A lot of writers may want to create a PI character, but not know enough about the business to make the character believable. I’d imagine that the reality of a PI’s life really is different from the excitement in the novels but as you say, who wants to read all the day-to-day details?

  6. And then there’s the reluctant PI who has retired or is in semi-retirement but agrees to take up one last case as a favour to an old friend or, I suspect, because he or she is actually missing all the excitement of investigating a crime. This sort of thing happens a lot in spy fiction.

    • Prashant – You’re right that there are plenty of PI and spy sleuths who take ‘one last case’ or look into something quietly to oblige a friend. As you say, there is likely the not-so-hidden motive of wanting to stay ‘in the business’ and it’s interesting how some sleuths try to tell themselves that’s not why they’re doing that ‘one little favour’ for someone.

  7. I knew someone years ago who went to work for a PI. It seemed to involve a lot of divorce cases and not much else although it could have been where we lived. I think I remember reading an article that they do a lot of work in the commercial fraud/industrial espionage arena. I suspect that is very well paid.

    • Sarah – From what I’ve read, PIs do spend a lot of time on divorce cases. They also spend time on pre-hiring screening for prospective employees. And I’d guess that those two kinds of investigations don’t pay as well as commercial/industrial espionage does.

  8. OK, not monetary reward, but do you remember this, one of my favourite moments in the whole of Christie. In Cat Among the Pigeons, schoolgirl goes to see Poirot, because she has heard of him from her aunt, who is HP’s landlady in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. They discuss charming quirks of aunt, and eventually schoolgirl says The food’s weird there, but she does make great omelettes. At which point Poirot says ‘the life of Hercule Poirot has not been in vain. It was I who taught your Aunt Maureen how to make an omelette.’ Makes me laugh every time.

    • Moira – Oh, yes! I do love that omelette-making conversation! Poirot takes such pride in the knowledge that he has taught Maureen Summerhayes how to cook at least one thing properly. Such a funny connection to Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, I think.

  9. My favourite sleuth series is the Dylan Thomas series by Shirley Wells. Dylan is always living from job to job and sometimes, if the outcome is not what is expected, he doesn’t get any money at all. Because of his work, he has a lot of problems at home with his wife and kids. I think being a PI would be hard work.

    • Clarissa – I would think it would be hard too, especially for a PI who doesn’t do high-profile (and therefore lucrative) cases. And thank you for the reminder of the Dylan Thomas series. That’s one I need to get to know better than I do.

  10. I do like the private detective more than the police one. They are not so bound by procedure, red tape, etc. More women seem to write these.

    • Patti – You’ve definitely got a point about the ‘red tape’ difference between police and PIs. Of course, in real life (and in realistic PI novels) there are limits to what a PI is allowed to do, and the way a PI is allowed to get information. but it is, as the saying goes, a different ball game.

  11. kathy d.

    This is a good discussion. It does seem that private detectives spend a lot of time worrying about how to pay the bills, and taking on cases they might not in order to make the rent. This is somewhat like attorneys who do social justice cases and represent poorer clients pro bono or at a very reduced rate. Sometimes they have to take cases for wealthy clients, even if they abhor how they made the money, but they have to pay the rent, staff, etc.
    I know that V.I. Warshawski keeps her corporate clients so that she can investigate cases for friends and others who need her skills, but who can’t pay her. Her willingness to take on cases regardless of clients’ ability to pay — always keeping her wealthy clients satisfied — is a good trait, one that makes her books interesting and inspiring.
    Somehow, Nero Wolfe always finds someone who can pay a hefty fee, no matter who is involved; he always has an angle. After all, he has to support staff, an enormous greenhouse with orchids, his gourmet foods, beer, rent, custom-made clothing — the works. However, a paying cliemt always comes through, even if Wolfe has to threaten near blackmail to get the fee, i.e., he’ll expose a person’s secret or scheme. Yes, Wolfe carries out a lot of chicanery to get paid, but he always does.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you’re enjoying the discussion – I am, too. You bring up a really interesting point, too, that PI sleuths do have to sometimes take cases for wealthy and well-connected clients to, as you say, pay the bills. And that really is analogous to what attorneys sometimes do. They too take some lucrative cases so they can also put their energies into social justice cases. And it’s interesting too to think about how much of their time these professionals are willing to spend on the ‘money’ cases, even if as you say they have nothing but contempt for the client. And yes, Nero Wolfe always has a way of getting clients to pay doesn’t he???

  12. I’ve just finished reading a new book by Larry D. Thompson called DEAD PEASANTS about an enormously wealthy retired attorney who gets bored and decides to do pro bono work. He sets up shop in a poor part of town and soon is busier than he ever was before. He also gets more satisfaction out of his work than ever before. Fascinating book.

    • Barbara – Oh, you’ve got my interest! I have a special admiration for lawyers who do cases on principle and not just to get billable hours. Thanks for letting me know about this.

  13. kathy d.

    The book by Larry D. Thompson sounds fascinating to me, too, and I am always interested in books about attorneys, since my teenage days with Perry Mason, and my real-life job working at a civil liberties office.

    • Kathy – Oh, I used to watch that show, too! And well-written books about lawyers really do give a fascinating picture of cases, the attorney’s work, and so on.

  14. Another aspect of murder mystery writing is the one I’m involved in – Murder Mystery Parties. You’ll find that many people love the role playing involved in solving the case and following the twists and turns of a well-crafted plot. This type of writing requires an ability to pare down the scenario while still giving those who are attempting to solve the case enough meat to reach a logical solution. Any thoughts?

    • Jack – Oh, I give you lots of credit for creating mystery parties. You’re right that it requires a really delicate balance between making sure everyone has the information needed with the ‘wiggle room’ so that it doesn’t feel scripted. That’s not easy. I’d say that if you’re going to have the sleuth dislike the client in a game situation, you’d need to make it clear in your synopsis and character sketches that that’s the case and why. That’d be especially important I would think if that dislike is directly relevant to the murder.

      • In my murder mysteries, the victim is always someone for whom one can develop an instant dislike. The “self-talk” of the investigator has to be, “Too bad he/she is dead, but it was well deserved.” With no emotional attachment to the victim, the intricacies of the case can take the forefront.

        • Jack – You definitely have a well-taken point. When the sleuth can have a certain amount of detachment, it is much easier to focus on the crime itself.

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