The detective story is a time-honored tradition in American popular culture: with characters ranging from Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to Veronica Mars and Adrian Monk, audiences have been frequently entertained by private detectives who walk a line between legality and illegality, if not disregarding it entirely. This concept continues in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming movie “Inherent Vice”, following his most recent works, “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood”. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, the movie follows a private investigator with a penchant for cannabis as he tries to solve the disappearance of Jewish millionaire with neo-Nazi connections in the 1960s. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the private detective, Doc Sportello, critics are already predicting that the film will attract a cult following. However, as entertaining as it might be, Pynchon and Anderson’s world of drugs, conspiracy, and film noir couldn’t be farther from the reality of private investigative services.
Television, movies and novels often depict private detective firms as vaguely seedy and shadowy; while ultimately on the side of good, they are familiar and comfortable enough with the criminal underworld to use it to their advantage. But while private investigations has an interesting, real-life history, modern licensed private detectives are more likely to operate on a more official basis. Typically, a private investigation service will complete a number of tasks, ranging from background investigations, surveillance, and searches for missing people. For these reasons, they are more likely to be employed by federal and local government bodies or companies than by private individuals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 25% of private detectives work for the government, including Sheriff’s departments and other legal municipalities. Likewise, another 50% work for financial institutions, credit collection services, and other businesses, where they typically investigate insurance fraud and other financial crimes. Finally, the remaining 25% are self-employed, making these licensed private detectives the ones most likely to work with individuals as Doc Sportello or other fictional investigators would. However, as previously mentioned, modern detectives are less likely to be involved with criminals or a counterculture movement.
Movies like “Inherent Vice” are highly entertaining, presenting audiences with a interesting and detailed fictional world with just enough reality to make the story effective. However, if you’re interested in hiring licensed private detectives in the real world, you’ll likely find that fact strays far from fiction. Fortunately, this only makes it more probable that you will see results, whether you’re looking for surveillance or a background report.