The Cult of (PI) Personality

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I just returned from Monterey from a panel of private investigators at the Left Coast Crime conference, a shindig for mystery and crime writers. I rubbed elbows with accomplished writers. It was intimidating and inspiring.

I think often about aspects of my job, pondering common traits among peers. I wandered the hospitality suite looking at auction bid items. I snapped the pic of some Magnum DVDs, a show I never watched. Yet for not seeing the show, I sure recognize the name, the mustache, the Hawaiian shirts, iconic Detroit Tigers cap and the red sports car. Good investigators have what Magnum P.I. does — presence and personality. The investigators turned authors on the panel reinforced that personality plays a big role in our work.

On the panel we discussed daily private eye work and some ethical issues. Though I have a non-fiction book coming out this year, the moderator and the other three guests were accomplished novelists and writers. All panelists agreed that the investigator’s stock in trade is getting witnesses to trust them and to talk. Most of us don’t carry guns and have no real authority. Essentially, private investigators are salesmen and sales ladies pitching people on involvement in legal and other situations, often times against their best interests.

Moderator Stephen Buehler loosened us with free association topics: ever wear a trench coat, use a magnifying glass on the job, wear a disguise, etc. From there the talk went in many directions. Pam Beason, from Washington state, spoke about the advantages of being a female private eye because people relate to women more as mothers, sisters or aunts than as authority figures. A woman can knock on doors or look or act confused and no one thinks twice about it, she said.

John Nardizzi, a Boston-based PI with a law degree and author of “Telegraph Hill”, discussed getting people to look from behind the peephole to opening the door and giving information. Vallejo’s David Corbett, who came to private investigations from an acting background, told the audience an investigator’s most effective opening line with a witness: Can you help me? Corbett is now a master craftsmen as a novelist.

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Reflecting on being around police detectives and private investigators for nearly 25 years the good ones just have “it.” And just an in fiction and TV, these effective investigators can be quirky, gruff, charming, and maybe annoyingly persistent. But if you don’t have some personality and powers of gab and persuasion you won’t be an effective private investigator, unless you just want to do database research or be a surveillance guru.  But the researchers and good surveillance people have high value as well. You need the human touch to breathe life into many legal-type investigations. What I love about investigations it it’s usually a deeply human endeavor. (Over the years I have had various assistants and sub-contractors help me out, and I think I have selected them on personality as much as on qualifications.)

Some quick acknowledgment of investigators I have known who have “it,” charisma, big personalities, gravitas or force of will.

B.J. Sullivan, now a PI and retired from Sarasota, Fla. Police Department. He was the architect of an international smuggling investigation spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s that netted 60 defendants and $210 million in assets. B.J. could coax words from a log.

John Nazarian, my former boss in San Francisco, has ensconced himself in Los Angeles these last 15 years where he has become the de facto Private Eye to The Stars.  He is a marketing genius and smart enough to surround himself with good people. John introduced me to Bobby Jakucs, retired Marine colonel and retired LAPD homicide detective.Do you think Bobby has any credibility issues on a witness stand?

Kathy Boyovich retired this year from more than 30 years of service as an investigator for the Alameda County District Attorney. I met her when we independently investigated Gypsy crooks George and Sylvia Yonko.  On the day she retired, and needing knee surgery from an occupational injury, Kathy was hobbling up stairs to help me on another fraud case.

In Oakland I have had the pleasure to know private investigators Steve Gore and his wife Liz Litov, who for decades had successful private eye careers. They are incredibly gracious and I could see why witnesses would talk with them. Gore now is also a successful novelist.