Writing the Private Detective vs. the Police Detective

Writing a private detective series as opposed to a detective in the police force is always thrilling because it gives me the freedom to explore unique cases. My protagonist doesn’t have any of the headaches of working within a bureaucracy. She doesn’t have to answer to a supervisor. She makes her own rules. She’s in control. And it’s always interesting because every case is different. My PI can make a living working strictly on background checks, or she can work murders, kidnappings, and missing-person cases. There are no limits, especially in the life of a fictional PI.

To succeed in any career, it takes some degree of desire, professionalism, dedication, and motivation. I make sure my protagonist has a healthy dose of all of these characteristics and more. Although Jessie Cole in Her Last Day (the first book in my newest PI series) didn’t grow up with an obsession for all things Sherlock Holmes, and she never watched Magnum PI, life circumstances drew her to become a private eye.

For detectives within the police force, rules must be followed. Police detectives often work more than one case at a time, and they must write official reports. Unlike a private detective, they can make an arrest. Although there is no standard education requirement to becoming a private eye, a police detective must first be a law enforcement officer to be considered for a promotion to detective. After earning a degree, they would also be required to enroll in police academy training.

Many private investigators have a background in law enforcement, which is why I usually set up my novels so that the PI has more than one helpful contact. It helps that Jessie Cole has a close relationship with a detective on the police force. She also works with an experienced crime reporter who knows the ins and outs of working a crime scene. From the beginning, though, Jessie has learned mostly from doing. Her instincts are fresh, unmolded by the establishment, which makes it easier for her to work outside of the box and at her own pace.

The best part of writing a PI is being able to give her clients peace of mind. No matter what it is they need help with—whether it’s looking for an adoptive parent or child, searching for a missing loved one, or not being satisfied with law enforcement's conclusion to a crime—her clients need assistance. My fictional PIs can find their clients the answers they need in order to move on with their lives. That’s very satisfying as an author.

Many real-life PIs talk about the job not always being as exciting as it’s made out to be on television shows. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, which requires long hours in front of a computer. Whole days spent in a car doing surveillance can get tiresome. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, not too many PIs are going to have the chance to go in search of a missing racehorse. Neither will they don a cool-looking deerstalker and smoke a pipe while they work. But in the fictional life of a private eye who is ultimately his own boss, anything goes!

Read Kristin Centorcelli's review of the first PI Jessie Cole mystery, Her Last Day!


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T.R. Ragan (Theresa Ragan) is a New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author. Her exciting Lizzy Gardner series—Abducted, Dead Weight, A Dark Mind, Obsessed, Almost Dead, and Evil Never Dies—has received tremendous praise. Theresa grew up in a family of five girls in Lafayette, California. An avid traveler, her wanderings have carried her to Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, China, Thailand, and Nepal, where she narrowly survived being chased by a killer elephant. Before devoting herself to writing fiction, she worked as a legal secretary for a large corporation. Theresa and her husband Joe have four children and live in Sacramento, California


  1. Mia Evans

    I like that you pointed out how private detectives would be able to give their clients peace of mind regarding their dilemmas. I would also feel that way if ever I want to know something about my partner or a relative. With that in mind, this sparked my interest in reading books related to private investigators as the main character since it would give me a glimpse of what their world looks like.

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