Private “I”

When I accepted this job with Cat’s Eye, I usually received one of two responses. One thing people said to me was some variation of, “So you’re going to go catch guys cheating on their wives?”

Let’s quickly tackle the immediate misconception that all cheating spouses are men. Granted, many of them are men. I’d say they make up about half. Also, I’m not an investigator, so no, I’m not catching anyone do anything. My boss, however . . . She’s got some stories.

The other thing people said to me was, “You gonna go be a Private Eye?”

What a funny thing to keep hearing, that Sam Spade moniker “Private Eye.” As if Cat worked cases in a long business coat and a fedora. That’s the image we all have, right? Cigarette smoke, half-empty liquor bottle, cocky. Perhaps a little annoyed by the interruption but intrigued by the mystery all the same. When someone hires a Private Eye, they expect Humphrey Bogart.

Of all the nicknames for licensed investigators, that one seems to stick the most. I had always assumed that phrase was a shortened version of Private Investigator. Private “I.” That made the most sense to me that “I” would naturally be converted into a phonetic “Eye.”

Wouldn’t you know? I was wrong. (Ooof. It hurts just to type it. My wife just looked up from her desk at work and said, “I sense something.”)

We have Allan Pinkerton to thank for the nickname. His surname is synonymous with the first detective agency, which he founded in 1850 and whose agents were pejoratively known as “The Pinkertons.” The agency’s logo?

(Credit to BBC America for the image.)

It’s not just the logo that gave us “Private Eye,” but the company motto as well: We Never Sleep. An eye that’s always open, always watching. Always on the prowl.

Of course, the Pinkertons were a private company, not government agents. Hence, “Private Eye.” They originally hunted train robbers, which at the time was a new phenomenon. But by the turn of the century, their agents numbered in the thousands and state governments actually feared them. With enough money, the Pinkertons could be purchased as a small, ruthless army.

The company lost its moral compass when Allan died in 1884 and the Pinkertons became a law unto themselves. The Robber Barons hired them out as thugs — seriously, check out the Homestead Strike for the most infamous example — and soon many of the laws that still regulate our industry were passed.

It wasn’t until Sam Spade came along that the nickname found a renewed positive connotation. Spade was first introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, and Bogey immortalized him on film in 1941. Hammett drew from his experience — you guessed it — working as a Pinkerton operative for seven years. His novel Red Harvest is about a nameless PI simply called “The Continental Op,” a thinly veiled stand-in for a Pinkerton. From that time on, “Private Eye” has became an instant, recognizable symbol. Bogey in The Big Sleep. Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The legacy of the Pinkertons still resonates. I hear it in a potential client’s questions, and I can empathize. This industry has to fight against the stereotype of crooked people willing to do crooked things. All of our clients want the same thing: the unvarnished truth.

The industry has changed in the last century. Once, Private Eyes were either jackbooted thugs or unofficial detectives weaving over both sides of the law. Now we’re a business that deals in discretion, eyes open and mouths closed. It took some time, but society has realized the legitimacy and the usefulness of an experience, licensed investigator. Today, you can find a trustworthy PI who can get the job done under the law. Our lead investigator used to work for Raleigh PD, and most days I don’t see her in office. She’s out in the field, doing the work, taking care of the job. So much of this industry has changed, but it’s still a 24/7 profession. Sometimes, it seems, Cat never sleeps either.


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