Friday, July 24, 2009

PIs, Car Chases, and Squealing Brakes

****Update: The winners, picked at random from the individuals leaving comments on PIs, Car Chases, and Squealing Brakes. are: Chester Campbell and Chelle. Each is eligible for either a "Writing PIs" T-shirt or one free class from Please e-mail The Stiletto Gang using the "Contact Us" link on the right side of this blogsite so we can tell you how to claim your prize. Thanks.

The Stiletto Gang


I noticed your guest blogger last week was Lisa Lutz, who has a very funny car chase prologue that kicks off her wonderfully entertaining book The Spellman Files (the first in her Spellman series). I laughed when I first read the prologue, laughed again when I read it to my husband (who’s also my business partner in our private investigator [PI] agency), then laughed all over again when I read it to his teenage daughter (who, with a PI dad and a PI stepmom, is similar to the protagonist in The Spellman Files). Suffice it to say, we’re a real-life PI family who are fans of the fictional PI family, the Spellmans.

But what about such car chases in real life? I mean, besides the Spellmans, think about all those groovy car chases and squealing, burning brakes in every one of those old Rockford episodes (for those uninitiated to this classic PI series, do yourself a favor and check out The Rockford Files, a ‘70s TV series starring an ex-convict turned laid-back PI, played by James Garner, who also did his own car stunts in the show).

Fortunately, those exciting, nail-biting car chases only take place in fiction. In the real-world, PIs drive more safely and have guidelines for mobile, also called rolling, surveillances (meaning, surveillances conducted while driving a car or van). I thought I’d discuss some mobile surveillance techniques for fans of The Stiletto Gang blog as some of you are also writers and might find them useful for your stories.

First of all, let’s debunk the myth that mobile surveillances are one-man (or one-woman) shows.

One-Person Mobile Surveillance: Recipe for Failure?

There are investigators who swear that a one-person mobile surveillance is a recipe for failure (one PI gives a 5% success rate). In our agency, we can vouch that a one-person mobile surveillance is tough. You’re watching traffic and pedestrians and intersections and traffic lights and regulatory traffic signs and your subject is weaving and gunning it through rush-hour traffic and…

You just lost him.

We now counsel prospective clients that a two-person surveillance significantly increases the chances of success. Our preference is two investigators in two vehicles, but even two investigators in one vehicle improves the success rate of a mobile surveillance (one investigator can focus on driving while the other takes video/photographs, checks directions, stays focused on where the subject’s car is turning, etc.)

Nevertheless, at our agency there are times where one of us ends up doing a solo mobile surveillance. Sometimes by accident. For example, both of us were surveiling a felon a while back. We were in two cars, communicating with each other by walkie talkies. We’d researched the area, knew all the streets, and we prepared to do a two-person mobile surveillance. When the target turned on a side street, I followed, but my husband got caught in a rush-hour traffic jam. Miraculously, I did a one-person mobile surveillance through three counties, all the while tracking the felon, and ultimately tagging the location he ended at (which had been our goal). But I’ll tell you, both of us still shake our heads over that one—we still can’t believe we pulled off a one-car/one-investigator mobile surveillance through three counties. For those of you writing a sleuth story, maybe he/she knows the stakes are against him/her in a lengthy one-person mobile surveillance, but goes for it anyway.

Tips for Conducting a One-Vehicle, One-Investigator Mobile Surveillance

If your fictional sleuth is stuck, such as I was, in a one-vehicle, one-investigator mobile surveillance, think about using some of the following techniques:
  • Have him/her stay in the right lane most of the time. If that’s not possible, use the center lane (that way, your PI can respond to either a right turn or left turn at the last moment).

  • If it's a night surveillance, have your sleuth disable the dome light. Some real-life PIs put black tape over any miscellaneous interior lights as well (digital clocks, radio dials, etc.).

  • While following, have your sleuth try to keep one car between his/her vehicle and the vehicle being following.

  • Rather than stop directly behind the subject at a red light, see if there is a parking lot your sleuth can pull into until the light changes.

  • If your fictional PI has an associate riding shotgun, besides taking photos, reading maps, etc., that person can also jump out for foot surveillance if necessary.

Tips for Conducting a Two vehicle/Two investigator Mobile Surveillance

Much better odds with two cars, two PIs. Below are some tips for this scenario:

  • If your fictional PI has a good idea where the subject is going, he/she might travel in front of the target’s vehicle (be the lead) while the second PI travels behind the target’s vehicle.Using radios, the lead unit stays fairly close to the subject (no more than three or four cars in front). If the trailing unit sees the subject signal for a turn, he can radio the lead unit in time for it to make the same turn ahead of the subject.

  • Play leapfrog: If the trailing unit gets cut off by a missed light or some other obstacle, he/she can radio the lead unit to drop back and behind the subject. The cut-off unit can then, by following the instructions radioed by the still in-contact unit, cut through side routes and place himself in front of the subject a few blocks down the road.

  • To avoid suspicion: The lead and trailing units swap places while following the subject. First, the lead unit drops back behind the subject and just in front of the trailing unit. The trailing unit then speeds up and places him/herself in front of the subject.

  • Think about using these techniques in your story. Have your PI mull over his/her options, discuss it with his associate. It’ll add plausibility to your characters and your story for them to discuss such tactics, their anticipated success rate, and use such jargon as “rolling” or “mobile” surveillance.

  • And then, when they’re out there on the road, think about your readers and how much they love the prologue to The Spellman Files, or the way Jim Rockford could spin his car on a dime, and throw in some squealing, burning brakes.

Colleen is offering 2 giveaways to 2 names randomly picked from all who comment: 1 "Writing PIs in Novels--Keeping Sleuths Real on the Page" T-shirt (size L, sorry it's the only size left), and 1 free registration to class of choice from Quick Studies on the Shady Side: Tips and Techniques for Writers Developing Sleuths:

Names to be picked on Sunday, July 26! Check back here for winners and information on how to collect your prize if you win!

Colleen Collins ( is a multi-published author and professional PI. She and her husband run a detective agency in Denver, Colorado, and post articles about investigations on their blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes ( They’re currently teaching a series of classes for writers: “Quick Studies on the Shady Side: Tips and Techniques for Writers Developing Sleuths” at


  1. So you are saying that the chase in "Bullitt" was a tad unlikely? I always thought he should have had a partner with him.

    (Thanks for the informative post -- anyone who starts with Rockford and Isabel Spellman is someone to be listened to.)

  2. That chase scene in Bullitt ranks up there with the best. What partner could have held his/her own against Steve McQueen? Fun to think about. Thanks for the post.

  3. Actually, I can see a humorous situation using two cars/two sleuths. All the confusion, the unexpected traffic jams, the phone calls and texting, looking down at the phone and missing the turn. Thanks for loads of ideas!

    Hope Clark

  4. $200 a day and expenses--I own 2 seasons of Rockford on DVD.

    Question--while on surveillance have you seen unexpected events like a car accident or a crime? Do you report it to the police or stay on surveillance?

  5. One more question about surveillance. Have you ever had to do surveillance on someone where you felt completely out of place? If so how did you handle that?

  6. Thanks for the blog. I was curious, do you ever work for other PI's? Are there large PI outfits like the Pinkertons? Doesn't seem so, seems like PIs always work alone.

  7. I write two PI series and try to keep them realistic. Thanks for some great suggestions.

  8. This site is adorable and the motto is really clever. I'm definitely going to look up the Spellman Files series. If a car chase on paper can make you laugh, I have to read it!

  9. Hi Sam,

    In response to your question >>Question--while on surveillance have you seen unexpected events like a car accident or a crime? Do you report it to the police or stay on surveillance?<<

    Our answer: Yes, we've seen unexpected events. Once we saw a dog being abused and we didn't care that we broke off our surveillance--we jumped out of the van to confront the dog owner, but he saw us coming and tossed the dog into the vehicle and drove off. We got the guy's license plate number and called the police, who took off after him. Then we got back in our van and continued our surveillance...we figured there'd been enough commotion, maybe people weren't so aware of our comings and goings.

    Thanks for writing.

  10. Hi again Sam,

    In response to your question >> Have you ever had to do surveillance on someone where you felt completely out of place? If so how did you handle that?<<

    Our answer: Absolutely that's happened. One of our first surveillances was in one of the worst, drug-infested, gang-ridden areas of Aurora (adjacent to Denver). Both of us were in a van doing an all-night surveillance, and it was extremely uncomfortable as that was one of the busiest, crack-dealing, prostitution-busy streets I've ever seen in my life (Shaun said outside of New York or L.A., it was the worst he's ever seen, too). We handled it by setting up the back of the van so we could lie on the floor and watch our subject's apartment (which was on the second floor).

    A funny side story: To stay awake, I was plotting a book out loud to Shaun...eventually he asked me to stop talking because I was fogging up the windows :) btw, I sold that book a few years later.

  11. Hi Broncos (our favorite team, too),

    Your question: >>I was curious, do you ever work for other PI's? Are there large PI outfits like the Pinkertons? Doesn't seem so, seems like PIs always work alone.<<

    Our answer: Yes, we sometimes subcontract with other PIs (and, in turn, we'll hire subcontractor-PIs to work with us). We can't think of too many large PI businesses off the top of our heads, although we know of several PI firms that have 4-6 investigators on staff. We also know a PI agency that has offices around the U.S. and they have approximately 20 PIs working for them.

    But we agree, most PIs seem to work alone.

  12. Thanks to everyone else who posted comments & mentioned the blog had some helpful info--that's our goal.

    We'll be checking in tomorrow again.


  13. Not currently being a PI or a detective writer, the surveillance I've conducted, imagined or otherwise, has been largely limited to friends and family, but I remember fondly a time when my son was a few months old and I was at home in the days with him, I noticed from the balcony that someone was conducting surveillance from a car at the end of a street. For several days. And I'd watch when the relief shift came. I never just went down and asked then what or who they were watching-- ultimately it seemed to fill the days better to guess. It had something to do with a new apartment complex that had just opened, but what I don't know. But I was quite as patient as the people who were actually, presumably, being paid to sit and watch,

  14. Yes, you certainly had the same patience those on surveillance had!

    Although most of our non-mobile surveillances have been conducted in vans, years ago we had a surveillance (our pre-van days) when we sat in the front seat of our car to watch a particular neighborhood. We didn't like sitting so "openly" but we figured if someone asked us why we were there, we'd say we were interested in the neighborhood, its traffic patterns, etc. as we were planning on buying a house nearby.

    Sure enough, an elderly gentleman approached our car and said he'd been watching us and what were we doing there? We told him we were buying a house nearby, etc., and he ended up telling us all about the neighborhood--including information about the individual we were gathering info about (for an insurance company).