Ask The Expert — Private Investigator John Nardizzi

We met John last year at Crime Bake. Thanks so much for joining us today, John.

johnnauthName: John Nardizzi

Area of Expertise: I’m a private investigator who handles criminal defense and civil cases. Interviewing witnesses and background research are the main tasks I undertake.

How did you become a private investigator?

I didn’t know the profession really existed. I was in law school and went to a seminar on different careers for law school graduates. There was a private investigator on the panel and he described a career that offered a mixture of investigative reporting and legal work. For a small group of us, the discussion was enthralling. He bashed the legal profession over and over, poking fun at the narrow intelligence of many lawyers. For a year, I called the agency every few weeks, talking to the receptionist, asking to meet with him. I never got a single response. But I just kept calling. One afternoon I got a call from the receptionist who told me the boss was talking about me: I was either too dumb or too stubborn to take a hint, but he liked my persistence. Eventually they needed an Italian guy to talk to another Italian guy. I fit the profile.

What are 3 things we should know about your area of expertise?

When people hear you work as a private investigator, they always say, “I would be a great PI, I can talk to anyone!” They are mistaken: they would make a great witness. The PI in the room is the guy–or woman–who is quietly getting everyone else to talk.

Witness is a word with both religious and legal connotations, which gives you a sense of the importance of witness testimony in our legal system. This is true in criminal cases especially. Forensics impacts so many cases we handle now. But witnesses make the case.

PI work is a strange little corner of the legal world and attracts some very smart people—but also some of the wackiest. I know PIs who were investigative reporters, college professors. But the middle class is very small. One of the preeminent PIs on the West Coast, Hal Lipset, said, “In the detective business, you’re either a hero or a bum.” That’s why a creative amateur can do quite well. If you get results, no one asks where you went to college.

What do people usually get wrong when writing about private investigators?

At the Left Coast Crime conference, someone raised a topic: is the private detective novel being replaced by lawyers/legal thrillers? One writer said the detective novel is passe because because modern PIs just sit behind a desk doing research. Dead wrong. PIs are out there interviewing witnesses on major cases all over the world—fraud, civil rights cases, criminal defense. Many lawyers outside the courtroom come off as very stiff with witnesses, and they are not usually the most creative personalities. So all these bestsellers where the lawyer is doing the investigation? Might be a secret dream, but in real life, it doesn’t happen that way.

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?

A good investigator, whether professional or amateur, can watch and listen to you speak and get a sense about whether you are lying. But there is no one foolproof method to do this. So while the art of reading people is a real skill, most crime novels oversimplify the process.

What are you working on?

My second crime novel is based on a case I worked on in Boston involving a man who spent decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. My detective, Ray Infantino lowers the boom on police informants and corrupt cops. He also roams into some cafes and restaurants too, of course. This is true of both real and fictional sleuths: we eat out a lot.

john-nardizzi-book-cover-640x1024Do you use your expert knowledge in your writing?

Yes, I try to use insights gleaned from years of interviewing people to craft scenes that have some psychological layers. The PI and witness verbally jabbing and feinting. Things that are said, things that are left out. I’ve worked in 26 states and met people I would never have had a chance to meet otherwise—men who were wrongfully convicted, Native Americans on reservations, con men, women who fall in love with con men. During the interviews, you learn what you need for the case. But as a writer, you always see something–a phrase, a gesture, a little story–that is just for you.

Readers: John will be stopping in to answer questions as his schedule allows. What did you always want to know about being a private investigator?

John Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. Telegraph Hill is the first crime novel featuring Infantino.

In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction.

18 Thoughts

    1. I hear that too Sherry. It’s almost become the new cliche in interviews with PIs where they tell how bored they are, but I really have no idea what these people are doing. Maybe they are talking about long surveillances. Maybe they chose the wrong profession. I mean, it’s not a 24 hour a day state of nirvana. But I enjoy seeing witnesses and discovering how the cases unfold. So it works for me.

  1. Welcome, John! Do you have to go through a licensing procedure? If so, is it different for every state? And how do you advertise your services? Seems like keeping yourself under the radar might be important, but maybe not.

  2. Hi Edith, we do have to get licensed in the state where we have an office. And it does vary. One or two states had no licensing scheme–Colorado being one of those, until a recent change in the law.
    As far as advertising, word of mouth among attorneys is the #1 source for me. Lawyers are kind of clubby like that. I do keep up a detailed website too. Being under the radar is not always a concern. I’m out knocking on doors on most cases so the other side is often quite aware of what we are doing. One lawyer said when he went on a view to a crime scene, he saw my business card on the table–I had been out that morning talking to the owner. The DA saw it too.

  3. I can’t think of any questions myself, but this is interesting stuff. I’ll check in later to see what else has been shared.

  4. It sounds like private investigators and writers have a lot in common, persistence in the face of rejection and the knack for listening and observing others. Thanks for joining us today and for giving us a glimpse behind the scenes!

    1. There is a link Jessie, especially in firms that take on a certain kind of work (defense work, civil rights, civil cases with large interview component). A lot of the best PIs I’ve met were former reporters.

    1. Always armed–with a pen & reporters notebook. And usually a hat. People like to talk to guys in hats.
      The college prof. wrote a pretty good book about his stint as a detective, I have it somewhere.

  5. So glad to have discovered you here, John! The Scott Hornoff case was fascinating. I can’t imagine what it took to get his conviction overturned. I read that the real murderer confessed but understand that would not be enough on it’s own to do so. I see I’m very late in posting this question, but if you are able I would like to read anything you have to say about Scott Hornoff and the New England Innocence Project.

    1. Hi Kate, Scott’s case was unique due to his profession: a police officer accused of murder and investigated by his own department (and later the state police). You can see the problems there… The investigative firm I worked for at the time wanted no part of the case–too hot, too controverisal. The Innocence Project was just getting into the case and after I left the firm, Scott’s case was one of the first cases I took on. Initially, we were focused on another man who had attacked and murdered women around the same time. Frankly, we were wrong about this guy; just a few months into our review, a man named Todd Barry confessed to the murder. Scott was released soon after from prison (the confession was enough to overturn the conviction). However, he was not reinstated to his job as a police officer, and RI law enforcement remained dead set against any settlement. So we resumed investigating the case, this time to get Scott his backpay, get his job back, and get damages for civil rights violations due to the faulty way the investigation was handled.

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