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.

Unbearable Lightness of San Francisco

john-nardizzi-book-cover-640x1024Today we welcome author and private investigator John Nardizzi to Wicked Cozy Authors. We met John at Crime Bake last fall.  Telegraph Hill is John’s first crime novel.

Crime novels are sold in neatly sliced sub genres: Hard-boiled, Cozy, Historical, Nordic noir.  These artificial boundaries are a construct of the book business to help sell books.  But many writers blur those lines–or at least mash up a few of them.  Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is considered a classic of crime fiction.  Highsmith set the book in the Italian fishing town of Mongibello, in the city of Venice, and other locales.  The detectives looking for Ripley are professional policemen, but the story (told in the third person) is from an amateur perspective–Ripley himself.  Ripley might be said to be a detective in reverse: an amateur sleuth obscuring his crimes with the frenetic energy of a first-timer.  There is little gore, no sex, yet Ripley’s convoluted sexual identity colors the book with repressed tension.  Highsmith’s book rumbles across the artificial boundaries of the crime genre.

I worked in San Francisco as a private investigator in the 1990s.  After I returned several times on cases in 2002, it was clear that the San Francisco I had known was rapidly changing.  I had written poems and short pieces about the city but felt a powerful need to explore it again in a crime novel.  The book features my San Francisco, not the one others might remember—a city colored with my images, biases, and memories from cases that I had worked on as law student and PI.

telegrphHill500Among the famous hills of San Francisco is Telegraph Hill, a gorgeous section of San Francisco where small cottages dot the hillside alongside Spanish-style homes.  A flock of wild parrots twitter in trees overhead as the neighborhood denizens make their way downhill for a coffee in the North Beach caffes.  I walked countless times from Telegraph Hill to Nob Hill, where cable cars stopped at the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel as fog rolled down California Street to ice the night.

Scan10003But the underworld of San Francisco was never far away.  Standing on the tip of Nob Hill at California Street, you could look down Jones Street to a different section called the Tenderloin–one of greatest mixes of wealth and poverty in the U.S., separated by just a few blocks.  The Tenderloin took its name from a section of old New York City.  In the late 19th century, a New York cop was promoted to midtown, where gambling & prostitution were rampant  He told a reporter that he had been “eating rump steak down in the Fourth precinct, but now I have a chance to eat some of the tenderloin.” People took this as a reference to taking bribes to look the other way, and the name came to be used as a pejorative for the city’s red light district.  To this day, San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has struggled to match the rest of the city’s growth.  In the 1990s, Turk Street glittered in the sunlight from dozens of shattered bottles.  Drug dealing went on openly in Boedekker Park and prostitutes worked the streets at all times of the day and night.  It was a far cry from the top of Nob Hill, which was just a few blocks away.

Scan10004All these San Francisco neighborhoods were populated with fantastic characters.  As I walked, I picked up the vibrant dialogue on the streets.  There was a homeless man named Billy, who rose out of his cardboard boxes each Friday night to read poetry at the Yakety Yak Cafe.  A pool hall down the street, Hollywood Billiards, where you could shoot some stick with unemployed hit men.  Within minutes of walking past bars like The Driftwood or the Coral Sea, I would stride by wealthy homes on California Street, then into the North Beach neighborhood near the base of Telegraph Hill, where the guys at Florence Ravioli Factory fired carom shots off the customers in an all-day comedy fest.

telegraph_hill_picAll of this was crammed in tight confines.  Japanese tourists who stayed downtown at Hotel Nikko would sometimes ignore the doorman’s warning and turn left out the door into the prostitutes, drug dealers and rough trade.  They looked dazed—how could a cozy $500 per night room be so close to . . . this?  I suggested to them some contrasting sections of San Francisco—Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill were just a short walk of street poetry away.

So the city of San Francisco was unique– or was it?  Cozy on Telegraph Hill, noir down in the Tenderloin.  You can find inspiration just a few blocks away in any place if you look hard enough.  Great settings always offer a contrast between heaviness and lightness, and the authors we come of love present us with a bit of each.  In my novel, the detective reflects on the mixed blessings of the city, the poverty that exists in plain sight of opulent wealth.  While troubled by the contrast, he knows that he is in love: “Even when you see her grimy face and wasted ways, you love her like a woman—the endless promise of California.”

What is your own private California?

johnnauthJohn 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.