Life as a Private Eye: Romance to Reality


Romance may inspire you. But what sustains you through a long PI career is a quieter, realer version of romance: It’s called passion.

The life of the private eye has been romanticized in literature and on television: The seeker of truth and justice. The fact-finder. The answerer of tough questions, when the police or government can’t find the right answers.

That’s the mythology. But if you’ve ever attended a state association meeting or a national conference of private eyes, you will soon learn that all private investigators are not the same.

We contain multitudes. Please allow me to elaborate.

Different Kinds of Private Eyes

Investigator Martin Hart in the police procedural series True Detective (written by Nic Pizzolatto), spoke of the different “types” of police detectives:

“The bully, the charmer, the surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain … any of those types can be a good detective and any of those types can be an incompetent, shit-heel.”  

There are also various “types” of private eyes: the novice, the ex-law enforcement officer or retired federal agent, the legal investigator, the businessman, the defender of human rights, the bean counter and the field grunt. All of these types can also be good private investigators, and yes all these types can also be “incompetent shit-heels.” Hopefully, our laws and our self-policing measures (industry boards and associations) should prevent the latter from remaining in this business for very long.

What unites us is the strange appeal of this fascinating profession. But every PI moves through the world in their own fashion, steered by their own inner compass. You are who you are. All your experiences, education, and biases as well as your mental and physical makeup will project and direct what kind of private investigator you’ll be.

Romance is Really Passion

In the movie The Good Shepherd, one of the characters (I don’t recall which) commented that all good spies are romantics. I would add that most “good” private investigators entered the profession with romantic notions of adventurous work and a never-boring life, and possibly a deep personal belief in fairness and fact.

The realities of the job often come to overshadow that initial sense of adventure. But for many of us, the romance never fades entirely; it transforms into something quieter and better informed — a passion for the profession that keeps you sitting in the surveillance van on cold winter days or during the summer heat for that extra hour or two. And it may be the impetus you need to knock on one more door on some late-night neighborhood canvass, spend full days in a dusty courthouse archive, or re-interview that group of witnesses one more time.

Planting a Seed

In his autobiography, The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from the Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Hank Crumpton writes of “dreaming of becoming a spy.” As a boy, he wrote a letter to the CIA expressing his interest in the clandestine service. He received a cordial reply, written on official CIA letterhead. He read books on the subject, and the seed was planted.

Like Hank, I too was so inclined. As a Nebraska farm boy studying in a one-room country schoolhouse, I read an article about J.J. Armes, the private investigator in El Paso, Texas whose hands were amputated after an accident. I wrote him a letter, and he was kind enough to send me a nice note in return, written on his official “The Investigators” agency letterhead.

This secret dream continued throughout my youth. My first week in college, I found that book, Jay J. Armes, Investigator, at the campus library. I read the book in secret. I was afraid to bring it back to the dorm for fear that the lads would give me a serious ration of crap.

I later made contact with the first private investigator I would meet, by asking to interview him for a college assignment. That, of course was a lie — my first ever investigative pretext interview. He let me into his world and gave me my first casework, in 1988. We are still good friends today and have worked together on repos, oil thefts from wells, cattle rustling cases, and of course, surveillance.

Romance, Tempered by Real Life

Hank Crumpton writes of life at the CIA with the voice of the romantic, but with some serious field-grunt pragmatism added in. There were some very challenging moments for Hank throughout his career, but that romantic seed, deeply planted in his rural Georgia youth, carried him through. As far as Crumpton was concerned, he was “living the dream.”

To outsiders, the PI profession still evokes an unreal air of mystery and danger, and we can trade on that cachet to a degree. Most people are intrigued by speaking to an honest-to-goodness, real-life, P.I. And sometimes, we private investigators can get a little too caught up in that romance.

But in my experience, reality quickly intervenes. I’ve never had any “cherchez la femme” cases (and I am sure my wife of 28 years is glad of that). I’ve never been shot at or had to shoot anyone. I have been chased several times after being burned on surveillance, and there have been other dicey moments.

But I’ve also had some very satisfying moments on this job. And those moments look nothing like the action-movie cliché of how people imagine our lives and work.

Ultimately, romance is for the movies, or for hardboiled fiction. But it can be a tool.

All of this is a bit romantic, but only as I look back on it now. Those weeks I slept uneasily, with a pistol by my bedside, did not feel romantic at the time. I was working a missing person’s case; the missing was a white-supremacist marijuana farmer whose associates were unhappy with my inquiry. I had told the family that I was sure he was dead — most likely, murdered. They did not believe me … until a human skull was found across the state line a few years later. DNA proved it was our subject. An “interesting” case, for sure, but far more enjoyable in the past tense, as a tale to tell.

Ultimately, romance is for the movies, or for hardboiled fiction. But it can be a tool, too — as a powerful force in a boy or girl’s imagination, helping to carve wishes into young minds and create a vision of who they may become.

Private investigators continue to serve society in many important ways. Some of these jobs have exciting, even “romantic” moments, be it gathering covert video on an insurance case, locating missing persons or hidden assets, corporate espionage casework or gathering information on a murder defense case.

But if you find yourself lured to the private eye profession, think of it as a trade. And with any trade, be it a brick-laying, cooking, or espionage, you have to learn the tradecraft. Expectations for the modern private eye are higher than ever, thanks to healthy competition and increased standards of education and professionalism, brought about by our industry associations and its leaders.

I tell many that some of the best entry-level jobs to learn the tradecraft required, outside of law enforcement training, are process serving, surveillance, or news reporting. And these jobs are not easy — don’t let anyone tell you different.

So if you ask me what kind of private investigator I am, I think Martin Hart said it well in describing himself. You will have to watch the first episode of True Detective to find out what exactly he said. And like Hank Crumpton, I’m still the romantic type — but with some serious field grunt added in.

End of Report


About the Author:

Steve Koenig has more than twenty-five years of experience investigating cases for insurance companies, attorneys, corporations, and private parties. He owns an investigations firm, Koenig Investigative Agency, in Nebraska, and is founder and past president of the Nebraska Association of Licensed Private Investigators. You can check Steve out on LinkedIn. 

Steve Koenig and Ken Mitchell co-authored the quirky crime novel, They Call Her Ed, which can be found via paperback or on Kindle at Any questions for Steve, contact him at