A little girl is torn between dreams of being Bernadette Peters or Barney Miller.
She never made it to Broadway. But as a veteran PI, her life is a little bit showbiz, a little bit detective show.
A writer and investigator looks back on the thrills and occasional letdowns of the PI life, and looks forward to the job ahead.
When I was a little girl, I had two dreams: one was to solve egregious crimes and lock away the bad guys; and the other was to star on Broadway. Not that I wanted to do those two things simultaneously, mind you. It’s simply that I had varied interests. What can I say? I’m well-rounded in an eclectic and off-the-wall kind of way.
I never made it to Broadway, nor did I become a homicide detective. But eventually I did find my way into the world of criminal malfeasance and puzzle solving — as a private investigator.
How and why did sleuthing win out over the twinkling lights of Broadway? The short answer is bad knees and stage fright. Then there was that whole “talent” thing. Ultimately, my true talents lie with the darker arts of stealth, puzzle solving, digging for information, and analyzing the criminal mind…and not so much in channeling Bernadette Peters night after night wearing pounds of makeup and crying a single perfect tear.
In short, I eventually grew up and replaced fantasy with reality. My interest in belting out Ten Cents a Dance before a packed house diminished, but my fascination with solving crimes never wavered.
I went to school, got married, had a family, quit school, lived an austere and sometimes complicated military lifestyle, went back to school, quit school, owned a couple of businesses, worked as a business manager in this field or that to make ends meet while raising three small children, and went back to school. (Like I said: varied interests.)
Why didn’t I become a cop? If I had trusted my instincts decades ago, maybe I would have applied to the Dallas Police Department and ridden the traditional train to detectivedom. But at almost 50 years old, traditional law enforcement no longer seems a reasonable pathway for me. That train has left the station.
When I finally made my official foray into the investigations field, I barely resembled the little girl who dreamed of saving the world from evil and bringing justice to the helpless and wronged.
The following are NOT reasons I became a private investigator:
1. I didn’t become a private investigator because I have an odd affection for trench coats and dark sunglasses.
2. I didn’t become a private investigator so I could arrest bad guys. (I find it funny and surprising that people believe private investigators can make arrests—as a general rule, private investigators in most states have no arrest powers.)
3. I didn’t become a private investigator to live out some 1970’s Barnaby Jones fantasy life, racing through the streets with siren blaring in hot pursuit of Schmuck-a-doodle Joe and firing my sidearm indiscriminately into a crowd of people, hoping to stop a fleeing felon. (These activities are, I should point out, not only unnecessary in my line of work, but are also illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland.)
4. I didn’t become a private investigator because I have a Charlie’s Angels type fixation on what it means to be a so-called crime-fighter. And I don’t have fantasies about being the female equivalent to James Bond. Let’s face it: He may be fun to watch, but in the real world, James Bond would make a lousy spy-sleuth.
5. Most importantly, I didn’t become a private investigator because I wanted to chase cheating spouses all day long or bait unsuspecting persons into infidelity. (Yes, I was actually asked to do that once. No, I didn’t do it.)
That just about sums up the myths of a PI’s life and work. Now for the realities:
(subheading: Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.)
I did want to become a private eye so I could do the one thing I do best: extracting hard-to-find information from people, places, and open-source data resources (and closed-source where legally applicable), and then filling in missing information for the purpose of closing cold-cases related to murders, sexual assaults, stalking, and missing persons.
Actually, I prefer the title “Information Archeologist”—I think it better describes the work I do. I’m a master at mining data from social media platforms. I am good at identifying questions that nobody else thinks to ask. I’ve had this gift since childhood—it’s a skill that often put me at odds with my mother and other authority figures.
I’ve always had a talent for research, and for seeing a situation and intuitively filling the knowledge gaps. I’m a manager of information in all facets: gathering, sifting, synthesizing, and especially controlling it. The latter is my forte.
I’m a great asker of questions, the ones that should be asked to gain the needed information. For some reason, people feel at ease with me—perfect strangers tend to walk up to me (often, in a grocery store) and tell me their life stories right there in the frozen foods section.
Maybe it’s the vulnerability of the frozen peas lying so helplessly in the frosted glass cases that compels people to spill the proverbial beans to me. Honestly, I don’t know. But it comes in mighty handy when people relax just a little too much and tell me things that, perhaps, they shouldn’t.
Perfect strangers tend to walk up to me (often, in a grocery store) and tell me their life stories right there in the frozen foods section.
Since we’re on the topic of over-sharing, I could tell you some darker truths about why the PI life drew me: I could say that I watched too many episodes of Scooby-Doo as a kid and never stopped seeing the world through Velma’s eyes. I might add that I’m curious about the human condition, and I enjoy snooping into other people’s lives (and getting paid for it). I could say that the only career in which it’s legal to do so is private investigations…but that wouldn’t sound very professional.
The long and the short of it is that I wanted to use my natural abilities in a legal way to make both a living and a difference in the world.
I should add one postscript: It never occurred to me when I started down this road that this work would often utterly fail to conform to my expectations—that I could offer healing and closure to those who sought justice. Neither did I ever expect that I would often unwittingly become the Angel of Death, as it were, to countless marital unions.
(subheading: If I could throttle Ashley Madison, I would.)
Sometimes I see myself as the Anti-Cupid. Although infidelity-related work pays a private investigator’s bills, I find it wearisome. I was cynical enough before I started chasing cheaters—a daunting task that repeatedly erodes any sense of romanticism that I may or may not have possessed at one time.
I’m far from naïve, but there’s still that little part of me that wants to believe in enduring love, passion, and devotion. But after all I’ve seen, I’m starting to wonder if it’s merely mythology.
I get it. Frailty is the human condition. We all disappoint someone at some point in our lives. But what disheartens me is about infidelity investigations is that I am the one who so often confirms the client’s haunting suspicions. Being the one who dashes the hope that their gut feeling is wrong, that there’s a reasonable explanation for their spouse’s missing hours, account balance, or affection gnaws at me on a personal level…and, no, I don’t think that makes me unprofessional. It makes me human and compassionate—traits often hard to reconcile with the nature of this work.
What disheartens me is about infidelity investigations is that I am the one who so often confirms the client's haunting suspicions.
I became a private investigator because I wanted to be one of the good guys. My least favorite part of the job is delivering reports that contain evidence of infidelity. Out of scores of infidelity cases I’ve worked, only one has proved that a client’s suspicions were ungrounded. I was never so excited to write a report! Sadly, when I delivered the happy news to my client —that his wife was loyal and faithful — it wasn’t the news he wanted to hear.
Turns out, he wasn’t so much suspicious as scouting for an excuse to get out of an unwanted marriage and avoid paying spousal and/or child support.
I tell my friends this: If you want a sure way to torpedo any belief in lifelong fidelity, become a private investigator. Working domestic cases is guaranteed to turn a Pollyanna view of the world upside down in 30 days or less.
(subheader: Waiting for Godot)
Every career has its challenges. In this line of work, we’re expected to think outside of the box and on our feet at the same time (which is bit like spinning plates while juggling), cram sixteen hours of work into the allotted four, wing it when equipment decides to fail at exactly the wrong time, and occasionally, read minds.
It is not my intention here to whine about the gritty realities of our profession. But I have to admit: Sometimes, it’s hard out here for a PI. The work is feast or famine, so to fill in the gaps, I work all the time—but often, it’s not the kind of work I prefer.
And at times, I’m a bit a bit deflated by the work that I do—as compared to what I imagined I would do when I entered this field. Surveillance, for example, was rather exciting in the beginning. I soon learned to hide in plain sight (and gradually grew out of some of the more paranoid methods I employed initially).
I even mastered the art of not fitting in on purpose, just to throw people off. (You’d be surprised how well that works in certain circumstances.)
But at this point in my career, I’d rather run naked through a Turkish prison than conduct surveillance. Unless the target is on foot and on the move—which usually makes for an interesting day—I find surveillance relentlessly tedious.
A Life I Love
All that said, please don’t think I hate my PI life. Sure, long surveillance days can at times numb the mind; there’s the constant pressure to market and drive new business, even though I do not currently own my own agency. (All in due time, my lovelies. All in due time.)
But the bottom line is this: Do I like what I do? Yes. Is it fun and exciting? Sometimes. For all of its hardships, frustrations, and occasional disappointments, do I regret my decision to become a private investigator? Absolutely not!
The business of private investigations offers unexpected realities and singular challenges, yes. Even so, for me, it is a deeply rewarding career. I sometimes talk about giving it up, but it’s just talk. I’m in it for the long haul.
And just so you know, I don’t always wear a trench coat. But when I do, it’s usually raining.
About the author:
Amy Lynn Burch is registered private investigator in the Commonwealth of Virginia employed by various agencies at any given time operating in the Virginia/DC/Maryland area. Amy is also a sexual assault advocate who devotes her time pro bono to victims of assault and also those falsely accused of sexual crimes.
Additionally, Amy is the mom of three teenagers, a freelance writer, super-secret ninja, cat whisperer, perpetual college student, would-be foodie, and obsessive gardener (even though she has been known to kill plants). She is regularly unseen by the general masses and could very well be right on your heels. Follow her on Twitter at @Amy_Burch.