University City

Real PI’s detective novel set in Charlotte

When talking to Allen Cowan, one gets the impression that he may be one of the most interesting people in Charlotte, and that he is full of fascinating stories he cannot reveal from his 25 years as a licensed private investigator.

One can, however, learn what being a PI in Charlotte is like from his first novel, “Vice Versa,” a humorous detective novel, to be self-published in March.

Cowan, 69, opens the book with a prologue that he calls “a puzzle.” It tells readers a story and asks them to figure out how the PI character solved the case. The answer is not given until the epilogue.

That opening is indicative of how the whole story unfolds. Cowan, who lives in University City, purposely delays full explanations in order to give the reader a chance to try and figure out how the investigator came to his conclusions.

“I wanted to make the book challenging to the reader,” said Cowan. “I think it’s a fun book to read.”

To become a private investigator in North Carolina, Cowan had to go through a criminal background check and prove that he had 3,000 hours of investigative experience. He had been an investigative journalist in Florida, Germany and The Charlotte Observer for 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Cowan said his byline is still recognized because of the investigative work he did to help expose Jim Bakker’s televangelism scams in 1979.

Now the state requires three years of investigative experience to be licensed as a private investigator. Many PI’s are former law enforcement officers.

There are also different types of private investigators. Some specialize in domestic surveillance, such as determining whether a spouse is having an affair. Others are hired for asset searches or to inquire whether licensing fees have been paid.

Cowan has worked for criminal defense attorneys to find flaws in accusations.

He also has expertise in finding people who do not want to be found, in order to serve subpoenas. A major storyline in Cowan’s book is how a private investigator goes about finding someone who is avoiding just that.

The “puzzle” in Cowan’s prologue is also something he shares with students when he does guest lectures for the criminal justice department at UNC Charlotte. He has lectured on investigative practices and evidentiary law.

Cowan said his writing style is like that of novelists Mickey Spillane and Carl Hiaasen. It combines humor with dark and twisted storylines.

“Charlotte presents itself to the world as the Southern, genteel city of hospitality,” said Cowan, “but there’s a dark side to this city, like every city. … In the book I peel back some of the layers of that onion to show readers that side.”

Cowan noted the Interstate highway system through Charlotte is a major factor in bringing illicit activity to the area.

One misconception about being a private investigator, he said, is that the work is all adrenaline and action, all the time.

On the contrary, he said, the research can be quite dry and even boring. The exciting moments only come as a result of hours of digging for clues, and occasionally require sifting through lots of documents.

Cowan spent about 15 months writing the novel, he said, and sent it to 300 publishers and agents, all of whom rejected the book. Many said they liked it, but it was not the type of book they normally handle.

Getting published is a Catch-22, he said. He believes that in order to be published, an author has to have established success. Examples he gives are Tom Clancy and John Grisham, both of whom struggled to get their books published early in their careers. Now most people have heard of the titles those now-famous authors could not find anyone to publish.

Cowan’s advice to other aspiring authors: “If you’re going to write a book, you’d better do it just because you want to write a book, with no expectation.”