Real Life Private Detectives
The heroine of my standalone crime novel A Game For All the Family, Justine, eventually hires a private detective in order to find out more about the family across the river that she believes is a danger to her own family. This element is an important part of the novel’s plot, and I particularly wanted to include it for personal reasons too. During my second stay at Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, I was busy making regular phone calls to try and track down my own private detective, who was turning out to be…well, let’s call him ‘disappointing’, though that’s a bit of an understatement.
Like most people, I had never hired a private detective before. I had planned, in fact, to go my whole life without ever hiring one. Then I found myself in dire need of information that I was unable to obtain on my own, and I allowed myself to think the unthinkable: ‘This is what private detectives are for, so why don’t I give one a ring and see if he/she can help?’ I picked the first reputable-looking, well-established firm that my Google results suggested. I should have known not to waste my money when the detective I spoke to – head of the entire agency, no less – sounded not in the least intrigued as I described to him a very weird situation. ‘It’s not insurance fraud and it’s not infidelity,’ I said by way of introduction. ‘It’s something much weirder than either.’ Surely the only appropriate response to such a statement is, ‘Ooh, tell me, tell me!’ My detective sounded half asleep as he made a note of the details. He took payment in advance – £350 – and then failed to ring me back.
At Greenway, on the first day of our holiday, my husband finally managed to persuade me that my private eye was not far too busy investigating my weird conundrum to call me and give me an update; he was much more likely to be a bit rubbish, not all that bothered, and he wasn’t ringing because he’d been paid already. So I swallowed my pride and phoned him, my hopes still high. I would prove my husband wrong, I resolved as I made the call.
My detective sounded as if he’d forgotten my name, the names of all the other people involved in the conundrum, and, most of all, the £350 I had paid him. ‘Oh, yeah,’ he drawled after I had jogged his memory. ‘Yeah, my people spoke to a few people – and apparently there was a rumour going round that X is the case. People had definitely heard about X.’ I could hardly believe it. ‘But…but…’ I stammered. ‘I told you that there was a rumour going round that X was the case – remember? You’re supposed to be finding out if X is true.’ ‘Oh, right. Well, I’m not sure how we could really do that,’ replied the detective. ‘Not without hacking email accounts and things like that – and that’s illegal.’
I almost fell over with shock. This was unbelievable. I realised that a substantial part of my problem was that, until I was unfortunate enough to encounter this useless private detective, I had met only his fictional counterparts. Fictional sleuths are all – to a man and a woman – obsessive geniuses who are happy to bend and break laws when necessary, and always get the right answer in the end, however challenging the problem, and even if it nearly kills them. They check themselves out of hospitals three seconds after emerging from surgery/a coma, against their doctors’ advice. Their motto is, ‘I will not rest until I uncover the truth’. By contrast, my detective’s motto seemed to be, ‘I will rest until I don’t uncover the truth.’
Huffily, I told him that I was currently on holiday in the former holiday home of the great Agatha Christie – creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. I hoped that the mention of these superior detectives would fire him up, spur him on to do better. It didn’t. Finally, I had no choice but to boss him around. I told him the names of three people who would definitely know the truth. All he had to do, I suggested, was adopt a fake name, infiltrate their lives in some way… At this point I think I said, ‘Do I really have to go on? I mean…surely you’ve watched some of the same movies and read some of the same books I have?’ He declared himself reluctant to use aliases and/or disguises, and unwilling to commute. He told me how much the extra work I was urging upon him would cost. That was when I began to despair. What kind of detective refuses to pretend to be someone else in order to gain the trust of a key witness? I got so angry, I eventually produced a massively hackneyed phrase: ‘I don’t care how you get the answer. Just think of something you are willing to do, and get the answer.’
I waited for him to ring me back. He didn’t. Eventually I rang him and, once again, reminded him of my name, situation and bank account depleted to the tune of £350. It felt sort of appropriate that all this was happening while I was at Greenway. ‘Oh, right, yes,’ my detective said in a vague tone of voice. ‘My people have, er…done a bit of digging and they’ve established that X is not the case.’ ‘Great,’ I said. ‘How, precisely, did they establish this?’ He couldn’t tell me, he said – not without compromising his operatives. (He might not have used the word ‘operatives’ – maybe I just wished he had; I can’t remember now.) At this point, I gave up, since there was no way of knowing if he really had found out what he was claiming to have found out. For a brief, strange moment, I considered hiring a new, better private detective to investigate whether the first private detective was lying to me.
My husband said, ‘You think you wasted your money because you hired a crap detective, but you’d have wasted the money just the same if you’d hired someone brilliant – Poirot, for instance.’ I asked him why. ‘Because you basically knew the truth anyway,’ he said. ‘No, I did not,’ I insisted. ‘And I still don’t. Knowledge and suspicion are not the same thing.’ ‘Well, I feel as if I know,’ he said with a yawn. ‘And you’d admit that you do too if you weren’t so stubborn.’ I didn’t reply, but privately I thought, ‘You “feel as if”? Sorry, but no. When you know something, you do not feel as if you know it; you know that you know it.’
In A Game For All the Family, the private detective delivers the goods for Justine, as fictional private detectives always do. If fiction were as unsatisfying as real life, no one would bother to write or read it. Realism is important, though – which is why I made Justine every bit as stubborn as I am. Readers of A Game For All the Family have said to me, ‘I’m not sure if I’m supposed to like Justine. She does things most people would just never do.’ ‘Yes, she absolutely does,’ I reply with a straight face.