RENE DENFELD: When the Thriller is Real Life

Written by Rene Denfeld

To tell the truth, I became a real life investigator because I needed work. I was a single parent of three kids I had adopted from foster care, and I needed a solid job. As any novelist will tell you, books rarely pay all the bills. So I looked around to see what intrigued me, and as a former journalist, being a private investigator called.

    That was over ten years ago. I’ve worked hundreds of cases since—including as a stint as a Chief Investigator at a public defenders office. I’ve helped rescue sex trafficking victims, exonerated innocents from prison, and spent years working with men on death row. For all the stress and sorrow of the work, it is the most satisfying, fascinating and fulfilling job. I not only get to help people, I am constantly immersed in the stories of others.

     As a writer nothing could be better. Every day people share their secrets with me.

    Through the work I have learned so much not only about crime, but about humanity. The deep inner workings of our minds and souls; the complexities and the questions at the heart of violence are there for me to explore, to learn and absorb. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of being a real life investigator is how hopeful it can be. Rather than be pressed into despair, and I am constantly surprised at the human capacity for survival.

    I have come to believe so much of the darkness in modern literature is based in helplessness. After all, if you feel too weak (or important) to confront violence and make change, then you are more likely to think evil is unavoidable and we can do nothing about it. Thus many books resort to monster tropes for their villains, with flawed heroes and saintly victims, rather than the more complex—and I think fascinating—realities of how violence is created, nurtured, fought and overcome.

     To be part of the solution has transformed me as a person. It has given me confidence to walk into situations others might find frightening, to save the vulnerable and make sure our system is just. More surprisingly, the work has filled me with the poetry of life—the joy that is found when we confront despair; the beauty that exists even in the most harrowing circumstances. It is the beauty of the wild forests I drive into on some of my cases, finding witnesses that live the same lives of their ancestors. It is the beauty of those who survive the intolerable, sometimes using only their imaginations.

    And while I didn’t expect it, being a real life investigator transformed my writing. 

    My cases have now inspired two novels. My new novel The Child Finder is about a young woman private investigator who specializes in finding missing children. She has been called to a case of a little girl lost in the snowy Oregon forests three years before, and presumed dead.

     The Child Finder is rich in procedural details—one of the fun parts about being a real life investigator is being able to take the reader into the shoe leather truth of an investigation, instead of relying on pretend CSI nonsense. It’s exciting to take the reader along on as the character in The Child Finder finds witnesses, uncovers forgotten documents, and searches for evidence as she tries to find the missing girl. As she knows, the majority of investigative work is simple perseverance.

     The reason so many cases go unsolved is not because a handful of brilliant sociopaths are constantly outwitting the police. It is because proper investigations take time—far more time than resources or funding is allotted. I recently worked a case that took me over two years to solve. It involved an innocent man who has spent years in prison. Likewise, cases involving missing children can take months, if not years.

    For me the procedural details are actually the less important part of my novels. What is important is the human nature of the characters: they could easily be people from my own cases. I love feeling the reader can join me as we delve deep into solving a crime. It feels like a rare opportunity to share what I have learned about not just how we save each other, but find a way out of the darkness to a better future. 


Read Timea Cassera’s thoughts on The Child Finder here

Rene Denfeld

Book Reviews
About Us
Contact Us

Privacy Policy | Contact Shots Editor