Earlier this month, I started attending classes for the Certificate in Private Investigation at the University of Washington. It was recommended to me by crime novelist and program graduate Ingrid Thoft, and I’m told by the organizers that it’s the only program of its kind in the U.S. My goal is to learn the investigative techniques that my protagonist, amateur detective Maxime Martin, will need to catch a killer. But I’m learning so much more and we’re just three classes into the program.
For instance, did you know that in the criminal justice system…
- The truth has no bearing on a trial. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the elements of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The job of the defense is to cast doubt on one or more of those elements, and thus compel a jury to render a verdict of Not Guilty. The defendant’s job in all this is to let his or her attorney do their job. The “what really happened” story is of no consequence and could very well remain a mystery during a trial and long after it ends.
- The police investigate crimes on behalf of the prosecution. Private investigators, if they’re involved at all, typically work for the defense.
- The police stop investigating when they think they’ve found what they were looking for. If they believe a victim died from a gunshot wound and they find a smoking gun, they call it a day. But what if the victim actually died of poisoning and the gunshot just covered up that fact? Private investigators tend to pick up where the police leave off, almost like a murder of crows picking over the detritus of a crime scene. Find the poison, and the prosecution’s entire case can be thrown into question.
The tagline for the UW program is: Uncover the Facts and Expose the Truth. Which feels so poignant now that I know what I just listed above. It’s not the job of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge, or the jury to uncover the truth; that job belongs to the private investigator. Writing novels that lay out a crime, untangle a mystery, and expose the truth just got a whole lot more satisfying.
A happy consequence of learning about the function of private investigation is that I started wondering how it got its start. (Being a lover of history, digging into the origins of something is an activity I relish.) I always assumed that it all began with Sherlock Holmes.
How wrong I was!
Eugène François Vidocq
The first known private investigation agency was opened in 1833 by a Frenchman, Eugène François Vidocq, who accepted money in exchange for solving crimes.
He made the first plaster casts of shoe prints. He ran a printing company that created indelible ink. And, like the kindly Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, he didn’t turn in people who committed crimes motivated by real need.
Seventeen years later in the U.S., Allen Pinkerton started his own detective agency and rose to fame when he foiled a plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln.
At one point, the Pinkerton Detective Agency had more agents than the U.S. Army and was consequently outlawed in some states because it could be hired as a “private army.” Which is exactly what happened when it was hired as strikebreakers and bounty hunters (of Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among others). Its motto was We Never Sleep, which inspired the term, “private eye.”
But what about private investigators in fiction? Surely, they can be traced back to Sherlock, can’t they?
Wrong again! The beginnings of detective fiction can be traced all the way back to the Bible. Here’s a brief rundown of what you can read about in detail in a Wikipedia article on detective fiction:
Read the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders, and it’ll sound a bit like a case of he-said-she-said. But when Daniel inserts himself and cross-examines the two witnesses, the truth is uncovered, the false accusers are condemned to death, and justice reigns. Similar stories of detection can be found in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles in which Oedipus uses cross-examination to uncover the murder of King Laius (never mind that his efforts implicate himself in the murder), The Three Apples narrated by Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights (which could be subtitled Two Fall Guys and a Guilty Slave), and Gong’an fiction of Ancient China (in which the detective is the local magistrate).
Early modern literature and beyond
Not surprisingly, another Frenchman pops up in history as a pioneer in private investigation.
In 1747, Voltaire’s novella Zadig ou la Destinée (Zadig, or the Book of Fate) appeared and seems to have influenced countless mystery novelists who followed, from Edgar Allen Poe (who is credited with having established the detective fiction genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841), to Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes and his trusted chronicler, Dr. Watson), to Queen of Crime Agatha Christie, who presided over the Golden Age of Detective Fiction during the 1920s and 1930s.
In the years that followed, hardboiled novels replaced classic whodunits in popularity (think Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, etc.), until the 21st century when Michael Collins ushered in the PI series of the Modern Age.
For me personally, given all the authors, genres, and subgenres through the ages, there’s something irresistible about reading a great cozy mystery, and it has nothing to do with drinking tea (which I don’t drink) or owning cats (which I’m allergic to). What lies at the heart of a “cozy” is a mystery that needs solving without the overdone window dressing of graphic sex or violence, and takes the reader along for the adventure.
If I’m lucky, my KNITTING DETECTIVE series will one day appear on the list of “Detective debuts and swansongs” at the bottom of the Wikipedia article on detective fiction. And then I can say it all started with A SCANDAL IN NICE and the ending is TBD because Maxime will be making stops in Lyon (in book two) and Versailles (in book three) before taking up his beautifully crafted knitting needles in-between unraveling a few skeins of luxurious yarns and unraveling his next big mystery.
Thanks this week go to fellow student at the UW and published mystery author Marianne Harden, who is filling my commute with invaluable advice about finding representation, and who has become my partner in crime in exercising our powers of observation as writers to decipher the private lives of our instructors. (But let’s keep that last factoid just between us!)