A PI’s Tools of the Trade

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-Ben Keller

We find ourselves in strange days.  As I write this, the nation – and the world – are weeks into a stay-at-home mode.  A grand experiment in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 virus circulating around the globe.  The impacts have been broad, esoteric, and unexpected.  Who could have reasonably guessed such a thing would happen?  Who could have foreseen that toilet paper would become the symbol of both reasonable preparedness and abject greed?  Knowing the community this blog is aimed toward, the answer “fiction writers” would be acceptable. 

One of the widely shared impacts is a massive transition for many to work from home.  People have been finding desks, kitchen tables, outdoor patios, and other nooks and crannies, pressing them into service as a de facto workstation.  And oh, what mighty conquests arise from rival claims for the limited home internet bandwidth.  These are the first world struggles of the apocalypse.

Yet as I and others discuss alternate, sometimes creative, venues for work, I’ve reflected on some of my stranger work environments in my private eye career.  Then, inspired by another Murder-Books blogger, I thought of not only the office equipment required for private eye on the move, but the other commonly used tools of the private investigator.  For example…

The Office in Your Vehicle

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A PI’s life involves a lot of time in your vehicle.  Driving from one case to the next, waiting for witnesses to arrive, and long surveillances means hours upon hours behind the wheel.  And the PI business is, after all, a business.  There are reports to be written, videos to be edited, bills to be sent… the list goes on.  The best way to manage the paper tiger is to use the downtime between shoot-outs and car chases (yes, I’m being sarcastic) to complete those more administrative tasks.  Laptops are great, but when you’re in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel is exactly where you want to place the computer.  Awkward.  So many of my brothers and sisters invested in a product like the above.  Such a mobile desks allows for papers, files, and other equipment to be at one’s fingertips.  A slot in the middle allowed for the seatbelt to anchor your desk in place, meaning the sometimes aggressive and erratic driving required wouldn’t send your most sensitive files careening across the dashboard.

The fanciest models had a swing-out platform to make working on the laptop even easier.  Some of my friends had office supplies organizers hanging on the rear of their sun visors.  Some had mobile printers placed in the lower storage well of the mobile desk.  Some had a rollerball mouse permanently attached to their center console.  Still others had a second battery and alternator installed in their vehicles to ensure powering the office equipment didn’t impair the car’s electrical function.  The most elaborate vehicle office I’d ever seen belonged to a friend and involved a tower PC – not a laptop – anchored to the floor of the vehicle.  A 19” monitor was mounted to the ceiling and flipped down while in use.  And he removed the polarization filter from the screen and had made 3-D type glasses out of them, meaning only he could see the data on the screen, not curious passersby.  Generally, the more one invested in their mobile office, the more productive one could be in unusual circumstances.

Wi-Fi Before There Was Wi-Fi

Come children, gather around the fire, and let your elders tell you of the dark times before wi-fi was ubiquitous and before cellular data was sufficient enough for streaming HD video. For much of my career, mobile connectivity was a pipe dream.  You simply saved emails in your Outbox, and they would be sent when you connected to the internet back at your office.  Via dial-up internet, of course.  Anyone remember the sound of the dial-up modem talking to the host computer?  Good times…

But towards the end of my time as a PI, some of the more tech-savvy colleagues were sharing locations on a map of a new option for getting online.  Some warehouses, hotels, and hospitals were using some sort of radio-based network (the word “wi-fi” hadn’t been popularized yet, if it even existed) to track inventory and staff movements.  Cyber security around these networks was non-existent, which meant if you parked their lots close enough to the building, you too could get online.  IF you had an antenna that would pick up the radio signal.  To that end, we shared secret blueprints on how to home-brew your own antenna from a coffee can.    Why yes, I do feel quite old, thank you for asking.

GPS, Old School Edition

Long before Google Earth gave you reconnaissance photos via military-grade satellites on demand, and long before we held extensive maps for entire continents in the palm of our hand, getting around and navigating the world took some planning.  I had an entire drawer in a filing cabinet dedicated only to maps.  Most PIs I knew invested in a series of city guide reference books that not only detailed block-by-block addresses, but also allowed for reverse telephone number look-up, paired to the address.  Of course, this was back when most people had landlines.  More Stone Age stuff here.

Eventually, GPS data was available.  The map data wasn’t pre-loaded, and the mobile internet wasn’t nearly fast enough to download it on the fly.  So in order to use it, you had to carry around CD-ROMs for the geographic area you wanted to see.  It would require 7-8 discs to cover the continental US.  And  obviously, they would not be updated based on new construction or road closures.  Access this data on the go meant a laptop with this software installed and a dongle connected from your laptop to the roof of your vehicle.  Not exactly sleek, but it worked.  Kind of.  Unless there was a single cloud in the sky or a low-flying bird…

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Okay, so maybe it wasn’t THAT bad…


In my mind, the prototypical James Bond movie is Goldfinger.  Best Bond.  Best henchman.  Best theme song.  Best femme fatale.  It’s got it all.  And it’s got the best gadgets.  I’m not referring to Oddjob’s razor bowler (though I’m non NOT referring to it).  Rather, the tracking device Bond used.  Maybe MI6 had access to tracker technology in the mid-1960s that could ping a location around the entire world and still fit into the heel of a shoe, but Gulf Coast PIs didn’t have the same technology. 

What we did have was a sonic tracker.  Imagine a small metal box we called a beacon.  It would emit a constant hypersonic tone, undetected to the human hear.  We would install that covertly onto the target vehicle.  Then we would attempt vehicle surveillance.  If we lost visual contact, we would strap on a pair of headphones attached to a hyperbolic antenna.  We’d spin in a slow circle until we heard a squeal of sound.  That told us which direction the beacon was in, so long as we were within about a two-mile range.  No maps.  No glowing dot on a grid.  Just an ear-splitting tone and frantic driving.  And we thought we were high-tech to have that!

VHS Camcorder

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Finally, a basic tool of a private investigator is his trusty video camera.  These days, covert cameras are nearly invisible, and you can get days of video storage in the palm of your hand.  But again, back in the day, we were a bit more limited.  The very first camera I used in my PI duties was a VHS camcorder.  Shoulder mounted, with about 20 minutes worth of video capacity.  Lovingly referred to as “the beast,” there was no covert recording with this bad boy.  Although once, in a fit of creativity, I did try to hide it in a microwave oven.  But that’s another story. 

A Final Note

This trip down memory lane had me thinking a lot about the early days of my career.  I started when I was ridiculously young, and I was fortunate to find several key mentors in the business who took me under their wing and taught me about the art of investigation, the business, and to one extent or another, about life.

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One of the most prolific was a man named Julius “Buddy” Bombet, sometimes called “The Father of Modern Day Private Investigation.”  He was garrulous, bombastic, demanding, and very kind-hearted.  Once you got to know him!  He was highly respected in the industry, and the fraternity of investigators he’s influenced spans the globe.  His pupils and protégé’s today work in the investigations and security departments in Fortune 250, federal law enforcement, the largest security consulting company in the world, and even the nation’s very first private investigation agency.  Buddy opened professional doors around the world to me, parts of which still benefit my career to this day.  His international network of contacts was mind-bogglingly impressive, and one of the industry’s most prestigious awards is named for him.  No fictional character I could ever hope to write would surpass him.

Buddy passed away earlier this year, and no reminiscing would be complete without a tip of the fedora (or Sherlock’s deerstalker cap) to a titan of the field.  Thanks for everything, Buddy.

4 thoughts on “A PI’s Tools of the Trade

  1. This trip down memory lane has triggered a memory of mine, in a field unrelated to private investigation. Is that black item under your tin-can antenna a Rapidograph drafting pen carousel?

    And this idea (rather, necessity) of turning your car into an office puts me in mind of my friend Charlie Black, whose father (a Maine State Police trooper killed in the line of duty in 1964) could be touted as the inventor of the laptop. He mounted a small portable manual typewriter to a piece of plywood and kept it in his cruiser, so he could prepare his reports neatly while he waited in the car to do this or that. His fellow troopers liked to tease him about it. This was about 1960, more than two decades before the earliest electronic laptop computers became commercially available.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article, Ben. It was a great reminder of how so much of the technology we take for granted today didn’t exist when I started my work career. Oakland PD was the first department in the nation to have mobile data terminals in our cars back in the 70s. They were called Digicoms. We could run license plates and people for warrants and even send a message to another car. Cop friends in other departments were in awe of us. And I remember having a car phone in my homicide car in the 80s, long before cell phones became pocket sized and something everyone had. I felt really special!


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