Plenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.
It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.
One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.
In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…
Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.
In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.
Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.
While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.