Private Ire: How to become a real private detective, or at least pass the interview

First published on AOL Asylum.co.uk (February 4th 2011) //

Asylum’s investigative reporter Declan Tan takes to the streets, and then a job interview waiting room, in an effort to become a private detective.

I was sat in the waiting room, window lit, pinched quarters coloured cream and beige, watching the hands strike toward the hour of my appointment. 1300 hours. Military time round these parts.

I leafed through a dishevelled ‘PI Magazine’, a specialist publication not ordinarily filed under the broad category that is waiting room light reading.

But in this case, laid out on the third floor recruitment office of one of London’s many PI agencies, it seemed only appropriate. I neatly unfolded its pages across the glass-plated coffee table. March issue, 2010. That’s last year. Every detail: a clue. Every fact: noted.

Private investigation is a piece of piss.

A squat man who fills in the corner seat, crossed arms and navy blazer (look at the details), squints his shoulders forward and says to my magazine and I:

“So, are you a dick?”

A joke, I think. A dick joke. Immature. But something about his scrunched and strangely familiar brow tells me his query is genuine.

“No, an applicant actually,” I reply, with a polite smile silently thinking that if this Sherlock is in the running, I’ll be in.

The door of the office swings open.

“Mr. Tan.” The new face looks toward my chair then to this other bemused man, then back.

I stand up, giving and getting a nod. “That’s me”. We saunter on into the plush dark wood office, leaving the man and the magazine behind, as the interview begins.

“So. Let’s start.”

“Sure.”

“Why do you want to be an investigator with us?”

“Good question.”

I briefly think about it to myself, already hearing the inevitable ‘We’ll get back to you’ ringing in my ears like tinnitus.

Do I actually want to be a private detective, a stalker for pay? On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a bad career move. Let’s face it. It’s a fine line between this and journalism, just with the added excitement and hardboiled intrigue that the likes of Poe, Chandler and Jonathan Ames have helped popularise, not to mention the requisite fine whiskeys and cigarettes, whilst doffing fedoras at fair-haired dames. Chasing the galley of a thousand dreams. And the tweed coats, I thought. Think of the tweed. I already had one of those.

As my interviewer leaned back into his chair, the green leather sucking him in, and as the awkward silence drifted through, I left him there while I recalled my conversation with Jimmie Mesis, owner and publisher of that worldwide trade magazine I had just flicked through, and how he squashed all my far-flung notions about private detection.

“Many in the profession describe surveillance as being similar to sex. Hours and hours of anticipation often resulting in a few minutes of pleasure and reward.” That’s a shame, I thought. I bet you didn’t say that to Larry King.

He went on: “In reality, the life of a PI can be very boring and very exciting. Conducting covert surveillance for 10 hours straight without access to a toilet can have its challenges, as well as dealing with the boredom of inactivity. The subject isn’t always active and a PI could sit for days before something happens.”

I’d sat for days. What about exciting?

“You can be called to solve a murder just as easily as being requested prove a person did not commit a murder. Or working a case to find a lost pet. The range of investigative services a PI can be hired for is quite vast.”

Have you ever solved a murder?

“Once. 7 years after it happened. Only because I dedicated my services to my client and conducted several interviews law enforcement had never done or followed up on.”

Back in the interview chamber, I cut the drawn out silence.

“Lost pets and murder” was the long awaited answer.

My interviewer shifted his weight, tilting his head and drumming a fist of fingers on the desk.

“I mean,” I stuttered it out, the wisdom of Jimmie’s thirty-plus years of experience on the job doing me no favours, delusions of Nicky Belane and Sam Spade just adding to the confusion, saying “I would be committed to always getting results for the firm” with a gush of relief as I spat out the platitude.

Always getting results. Well known in his home country of the United States, that’s what 2004 International Investigator of the Year Jimmie Mesis had done. Everyone from White House supervisors to James Gandolfini had employed his expertise. What could I expect, was there a sense of achievement, or was it just a job like any other?

“My greatest feeling of accomplishment has always involved recovering missing children, especially those involved in a custodial kidnapping. One case involved a man whose wife at the time had absconded with their 1 year old child. The man had legal custody of the child and a warrant had been issued for his wife’s arrest. For 6 years, the man had called the police and FBI seeking an update on his case and was always told they were still working on the case. The man reluctantly came to our office after being told by friends that there was likely nothing a PI could do to help him and that it’d be a waste of money. Well, within 6 hours we found the woman and the child. The following morning the police went to the address we provided and arrested the woman and recovered the child. The man waited and agonized for 6 years hoping law enforcement would do their job. Obviously they hadn’t. When a person hires a PI, we work for the client until the job is complete, no so with most law enforcement agencies.”

That’s what I should have said.

Interviewer: “So. Do you have your own equipment?” Another question, when will it end?

Yeah, I’d perused PIgear.com and considered ordering myself the digital binoculars and the sound-recording pen, even that rock with a camera in it, but finally decided the sediment-concealed video recorder wasn’t worth the £500 splash.

“I have a camera.”

“Telephoto lenses?”

“I eBayed them.”

“Where did receive your training?”

I didn’t have any training. I watched Bored to Death and Humphrey Bogart. And I wasn’t an ex-law enforcer like 50% of all the other PIs in the world. Though I’d been told it wasn’t a requirement, only “a tremendous desire to become an investigator” was needed. It was definitely slipping away.

“I did an online course and I’ve read much of the available literature.” Definitely.

“Right.” I could feel it was happening. Should I tell him about the stalking? Probably not. I didn’t have a license yet.

Then I remembered what Jimmie had told me, that “the PI profession has changed dramatically over the years. Technology has offered investigators tremendous access to instant information via the internet,” and I seized the moment.

“I’m proficient with all types of technology. I have access to a computer. And an Internet connection,” his eyebrow raised, “and I’m a quick learner.” That old chestnut. My answer, though feeble, was done. But Jimmie’s voice kept speaking: “Decades ago a PI was known to knock on doors and interview people and witnesses to get leads and solve cases.” Shush, Jimmie. He kept going. “Now, PIs can get all the information they need without ever leaving their office. The telephone, cellular mobile, computer, and Internet have become the PIs most valuable tools.”

I’d forgotten something “… and I have a mobile phone.”

“Good to hear.”

There was a short pause before he resumed drumming his fingers on that wide desk of his.

“Would you mind waiting outside for a moment?”

The featureless man was still in the waiting room. Once I left the office, he stood up and entered the office unbidden by the boss.

Alone now my mind went back to Jimmie. “I was once hired by a soda company to investigate the loss of $75,000 dollars worth of syrup. I conducted surveillance upon the tanker delivery yard to get an idea how that much syrup could have been lost or stolen.”

Syrup, I thought. I should have said lost pets and syrup.

What happened?

“Within minutes of my evening arrival I saw a van pull-up alongside a syrup tanker. The driver of the van climbed up to the top tanker intake cover and I saw him cut the seal. He then had an assistant hand him a garden hose which was placed into the 9,000-gallon tanker.”

What?

“These two men were actually stealing syrup from the tanker and filling up several 55-gallon drums located in the back of the van. Within minutes I had not only observed the theft of several hundred gallons of syrup ($17. /gallon) I had also videotaped the entire theft. This went on for an entire week and my investigation had not only solved the missing syrup, but also revealed that this was an organized crime racket going on for years. Within two weeks, more than a dozen culprits had been arrested and the investigation resulted in my client receiving more than $7 million through their insurance company on a theft claim.”

Jeez.

“Talk about my client getting a great return on their investment.”

Yeah.

“Too bad I didn’t get a commission on the deal.”

Suddenly the nondescript man and the interviewer returned together.

“Please meet my associate, Mr. Alvin.”

The manager gestured to the navy coated man.

The sneaky bastard was good. I’d been double-crossed. An inside job all along. Part of the application process I presumed.

We exchanged more unpleasantries and spoke briefly on the difficulties of recruitment. I got the picture. We shook hands and their limp wrists told me I wouldn’t see them again.

“We’ll get back to you.”

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