Nose To The Ground

4th December 2009

Heather Harris is on the trail of female private investigators…

We used to play it for hours...

I was always the blonde, my two friends were the dark ones, my little brother was forced to be Bosley. Charlie’s Angels was the ultimate role play – wearing our mothers’ high heels, we’d leap out of our bedroom windows and skateboard down the road, often wearing a snorkel, to investigate the latest crime wave to hit our sleepy Leicestershire village.

That was all Hollywood fantasy. Today’s British female private investigators spend their days serving summons, tracking missing persons or catching errant partners rather than foiling kidnap plots.

They work for themselves, generally, instead of for the disembodied voice of a millionaire boss called Charlie and they’re more likely to be ‘chained’ to their phone than to a disused railway line. What they do have in common with the three Angels, though, is their sleuthing skills.
According to Eric Shelmerdine, General Secretary of the Association of British Investigators (ABI), most women make better private eyes than men. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says, “women, have a natural built-in instinct – and a great memory. My wife can always remember what her female friends wore for an event a year ago whereas men have no idea! They are also excellent at reading body language, and they relate to the public better – which is vital when you’re trying to get information out of people.”

Shelmerdine’s anecdotal opinion is supported by the growing number of women swapping a handbag for a pair of binoculars.

Elizabeth Carter, for example, is a trainee private eye, taking a City and Guilds NVQ course in Investigation (is there anything you can’t take a course in these days?). She is not, however, learning how to jump out of a plane while keeping her lipstick immaculate, or how to hang glide in high heels, or how to scuba dive without her highlights turning green. For Elizabeth the curriculum ranges from learning how to question witnesses, to planning surveillance operations and giving evidence in court.

“I didn’t set out to be a private investigator – I just fell into it,” Elizabeth, 18, explains. She was taking a legal secretarial course when she was sent to do a placement with an investigator in North London. “I loved the work… It’s not a glamorous life like you’d think but every day is different.”

Elizabeth’s view is backed up by the lady detective who gave her this first taste for sleuthing, Sarah Martin of Sarah Martin Investigations. A former actress, Sarah has had her nose to the ground for the last 15 years and is keen to stress the seriousness of the job.

“It sounds like fun but you have to think of the implications of your work. You could ultimately be responsible for someone being put in prison, losing their job, their partner or custody of their children. It can also be dangerous as you are working alone. It’s not like the police where you have a back up team.”

In an effort to publicise the truth behind the Charlie’s Angels fantasy, Sarah became Education and Training Chairman of the ABI. The organisation was set up in 1913, by former Scotland Yard detective Henry Smale, and has 550 UK members, of which an increasing number are women. Forty per cent of entrants on a recent NVQ detective course were female.

Not that you need any professional qualifications – or even a licence – to operate. Anyone can don their long grey mac and advertise their sleuthing skills, but, as Sarah explains, this can cause problems.

“The perception of the public is important. The public need to feel reassured that they are putting their trust and their money into a reliable profession. That is why a qualification is good.”

Sarah runs her own one-day detective workshops which go into great depth about what the job entails, “so people know what they are letting themselves in for before they pay to go on one of the many professional NVQ courses.” And she’s never been busier, both from people wanting to follow in her gumshoed footsteps and also to employ her.

“But out of every ten job requests I get, I turn down six for either legal or moral reasons. I have to feel totally comfortable with the case I am taking on. My job is to be a fact finder only. I don’t make judgements.”

For this reason Sarah does not undertake the stereotypical rooting through dustbins for incriminating restaurant receipts from guilty husbands, or spy on straying housewives.

Sarah prefers the tracing side of the profession. “To tell a little old lady living in poverty that they are the sole beneficiary of a will is a wonderful moment… Or to find a missing person, or track down a vital witness to a road accident where the victim is seriously ill and desperate for compensation.”

And, she continutes, agreeing with Elizabeth, no two days are the same. “I can be heading abroad to track someone down, spending hours at the Public Record Office or liaising with forensic psychologist or fingerprint experts. A lot of what I do depends on the budget which the client has given me.”

Budgets, of course, vary wildly. So do fees. Private investigators can charge anywhere from £50 an hour for Legal Aid work, to £1,000 a day for the large London firms, according to Eric Shelmerdine of the ABI.

But who uses a private investigator? Nicky Boddington, 39, from Sussex, spent £1,800 to prove that her husband, to whom she had been married for 20 years, was being unfaithful. She hired the predominantly female PI agency D-Tec UK, and recalls, “I was so nervous, but it was worth every penny”.

D-Tec was set up by friends Jo Clarke and Jo Nixon, after Nixon’s ex-husband put a tracker on her car believing she was having an affair. He found nothing but gave them a great idea for a business…

Unlike Sarah Martin, these two Essex-based detectives specialise in uncovering infidelity. Their secret side-kick is 32 year old Matt, an ‘ethical hacker’ who installs all their investigative software. Think you’ve covered your tracks? He can unearth deleted e-mails and reveal passwords from any computer account. If you share your computer with your partner, there’s nothing illegal about engaging someone to do this.

The waters can be very muddy, though: the legalities surrounding personal surveillance are as complicated as the love lives of some of the clients. You’re allowed to photograph a couple kissing in a car, for example – but not standing by a car!

With today’s lady detectives having to add law and technology to their repertoire of expertise, the job is clearly far more serious than it looked on TV – but at least they don’t have to waste all that energy tossing their hair and holding in their stomachs – that’s what I call hard work…

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