A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes

A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes

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"But down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid". When Raymond Chandler wrote these words in his classic The Simple Art of Murder, he drew a blueprint for the male private eyes who descend from Philip Marlowe to populate the world of crime fiction.

But what if the private eye is a woman? And what if she is not a character in a novel but a real, working investigator testing not only the meanness but the absurdity of life on seamy streets? Who will tell her story?

Enter Manchester's Val McDermid, herself a skilled writer of the P.I. novel but for years a professional journalist. In an effort to plumb the real world of working women -- and throw new light on her own craft -- she has interviewed women private eyes from both sides of the Atlantic and assembled their stories with an eye for the absurd and a keen grasp of the gritty nuts and bolts of the profession. As fascinating as fiction, A Suitable Job for a Woman is, in the words of Edgar-winning author Nevada Barr, "a concise and eye-opening trek through the competence, humor, and humanity of women".

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

."" . . I don't know if there are other books that focus on women in private investigation. If there are, I've not run across them. A Suitable Job for a Woman is a wonderful read, a concise and eye-opening trek through the competence, humor and humanity of women."" -Nevada Barr

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781890208158
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: 11/01/1999
Edition description: Us ed.
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.22(w) x 8.66(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Suitable Job for a Woman

Inside the World of Women Private Eyes

By Val McDermid

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 1995 Val McDermid
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-890208-15-8


Getting Started

Does anybody grow up thinking they're going to be a PI? I think we always come from somewhere else.

Berkeley, California

I never had a burning desire to become a detective. I suspect that's one of the prerequisites. You mustn't have stars in your eyes. If you go into it thinking it's glamorous and wonderful you are going to be disillusioned.


'Have you considered becoming a private detective?' are seven words that have never passed the lips of a careers teacher. I'd bet money on that. Maybe that's because of the image of private eyes as seedy middle-aged male emotional cripples with drink problems and an unreliable bank balance. Maybe it's because being a good private eye, like being a good novelist, generally requires a chunk of life experience that the practitioner can draw on. Or maybe it's something as simple as the fact that there's no career structure. It's not like you can take a college course, start on the bottom rung and claw your way up the corporate ladder until you become VI Warshawski.

There's not a lot of careers guidance from the fictional women PIs either. They're mostly mavericks who started off in some area of law enforcement then fell into the job because they couldn't work within the system either from conviction or temperament. Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski was a lawyer who realised that she and her colleagues were simply papering over the cracks while society crumbled around them, the weak falling prey to the legal system as much as to the powerful forces that exploited them outside it. Linda Barnes' Carlotta Carlyle was a cop who wasn't prepared to brown-nose her bosses. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone was an insurance investigator with far too much attitude to make it in the corporate world. And Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano quit the FBI after she accidentally killed her lover in a shoot-out.

The mavericks who do the job for real have arrived from a much wider range of jobs and motives. Of the thirty-four women I spoke to, exactly half of them became private eyes by accident. The reasons vary from falling in love to financial necessity, from political conviction to frustration at the system. Of the remaining half, a third came to it from the police, a third from the secretarial side and another third because of family connections.

Only one of them was a career gumshoe. Like my fictional detective Kate Brannigan, René Olsson needed money to help fund her student courses. Kate went to work part-time for a private investigation agency, while René chose a security firm. They both decided this was the most fun they'd ever had without laughing or exchanging body fluids, so they became PIs. René, slightly more cautious than Kate, finished her degree in sociology first.

That out of the way she sent her CV out to private investigation companies, but while they were all impressed with what they saw, each thought that she was too young for the job. One company, however, was willing to give her a chance.

'They didn't hire me right then, but the boss said they really liked me and they wanted me to stay in touch. So I said, "Tell me what I can learn about, just tell me something to go study that will make me a better prospect for you." He told me to go and research old sixteen-millimetre wind-up Bolex cameras! God knows why. I went to the library and looked up everything I could then wrote up a report. Everything there is to know in the whole world about Bolex cameras! He was pretty impressed, and I asked for another assignment. I did this every week for about four months, all sorts of weird stuff, and finally Windsor, the boss, said, "I'm going to hire you to do a real job."

'It was a background check on this guy who was trying to get someone to invest a whole bunch of money in some scheme. I uncovered some seams he'd pulled in the past, mainly because I talked to everyone and went every place I could think of. I researched every single possible thing that was a matter of public record about this guy. I ended up giving Windsor a twenty-seven-page report and he about fell over! I didn't know what I was doing, I could have cut it down, but we were able to give the client very good reason not to invest his money. Boy, was I thorough!' The hard work paid off; Windsor hired René.

* * *

The most conventional route into the job is from the police. The vast majority of male PIs have previously been in one branch of law enforcement or another, but for all but a handful of women, a career as an officer of the law has only become a serious option in recent years, so in sheer numerical terms, there haven't been that many of them leaving the police to start with. Brenda Balmer and Diana Middleton both joined the police in Britain in the fifties when there were hardly any women in the Force and left in the sixties, for very different reasons.

Diana works just outside London in Hornchurch, Essex. She was a police officer for fourteen years, climbing to the rank of sergeant. She left in 1965 when this part of Essex amalgamated with the Metropolitan Police in London. 'I didn't want anything to do with the Met,' she explains. 'The ethos was totally different, and I knew I wouldn't feel comfortable there. A former police colleague had started an agency and he was looking for a partner, so I joined forces with him.'

Brenda Balmer didn't have any choice in the matter. Back in the early sixties when she was a policewoman in Sunderland, there was no such thing as maternity leave. 'I'd been a policewoman for ten years, and I was good at my job, bwt in those days, when you fell pregnant, you were on your bike,' she says. For Brenda, now a fifty-nine-year-old grandmother, the move into private investigation was a more circuitous one. She started work as a store detective at Sunderland's premier department store the week after she quit the force and stayed for twenty years, collaring 13,500 shoplifters in the process.

'I was the scourge of the shoplifters. If they saw me walking across the floor, they went over the other side of the road to Woolworths. Once or twice I got hurt in the course of work, and the bosses would ring me up and say, "We dinna care how many bumps and bruises you've got, we need you to come in and be seen!"'

So successful was she, that in 1970 she was offered the chance to set up her own security company. Only her husband's objections stopped her taking up the opportunity. Eight years later, Brenda found herself in need of a private detective to investigate her philandering husband. Since the only PIs in town were ex-policemen whom she knew from her days on the Force, she felt she could not approach them. It was this painful experience that gradually led her into investigation work.

'I couldn't turn to anybody so when I had to go through my divorce I had no evidence at all. I felt bitter about that. Then some of the staff at the store started coming to me and saying, "You know, Bren, my husband's off with another woman. Can you do something about it?" So I started to do observations for members of the staff, because I knew how they felt. I thought, at least I can help people in the same state I was in. I would write out what I had discovered and send a copy to the solicitor and then those solicitors started ringing me and asking me to do jobs for them. That's basically how I started. I was still working in the store for maybe five years after that. I was working for them from nine to five and working for myself between five and nine!' Eventually, Brenda decided she preferred being her own boss. Fifteen years later, she still runs Castle Investigations, but now she has the full-time help of her daughter Susan and son-in-law Mark.

Other PIs who came from the police left for domestic reasons — the need to spend more time with their family than their busy, high-pressured job allowed. But for Jean Mignolet, an outspoken, strong-minded woman who more than holds her own in the macho world of South Florida, it was the frustrations of the job, especially for an ambitious woman.

'I reached the point in law enforcement where I'd had enough of the bureaucracy, the inefficiency, the sexism. I was one of the few women in the unit, but I was making more money on merit than all the men in my office and they hated that. I had a lifestyle that wasn't ghettoised into law enforcement. I was married at the time to a European tennis pro, I was travelling, I didn't socialise with them, I didn't fit. Then I got beat up and shot at in Miami on a case and I thought, what am I doing? For $19,000 a year? Becoming a private investigator felt like a natural transition.'

It is a move that has certainly paid off. After four years as a partner in an extremely successful agency, Jean decided to go it alone and now runs her own agency, and even charges other PIs and attorneys for consultancy work on their cases.

Policing and private eye work may be similar in many ways but moving from one to the other is far from straightforward. All the ex-police officers spoke of the difficulties they had adjusting to not having the power of the warrant card, or the security of back-up. Christine Usher, who worked as a detective in Gloucestershire before becoming a PI, explained.

'I did find it difficult to make the transition from the police service. In the service I had my warrant card, I was someone, and when you come out you've really got nothing. Who are you? We don't have any powers, we have nothing, so you have to learn to communicate better than you did in the police service. Also, I think you feel conspicuous as a police officer, even though you might be in plain clothes. That's certainly how I felt, and for a little while I had to make the effort to blend in, although in reality I probably was blending in.'

Yet despite these problems not one of the women eyes expressed regrets at their decision to make the change. They share a love of independence that makes private investigation their perfect occupation.

* * *

Another route into private investigation is through legal work — from jobs as legal secretaries, paralegals and probation officers. For many of the women eyes who came into the job this way it was the kind of frustration with the system that Jean Mignolet felt as a cop that finally drove them to become PIs.

When she dropped out of a PhD course at Berkeley, Nancy Barber found work as a legal secretary and quickly worked her way up to the position of paralegal. Two things finally drove her into becoming a licensed PI. 'I had one colleague that I worked with very closely on asbestos [litigation] cases, and he was a wonderful, wonderful man. He had a really creative approach to the work. The more we worked on it, the more fascinating it became.

'Then he died suddenly. I thought, I could stay in this very comfy little position and make a lot of money but it doesn't mean anything. His death made me realise that you have to be willing to take risks and chances. He loved murder mysteries too. We had this fantasy about what our life would be like if we went into the investigation business together, and after he died, I thought, well, why not? I could do it by myself.

'The other thing that drove me to it was that I hired an investigator way ahead of time to work on a trial. We paid him a lot of money and he did nothing, absolutely nothing. Shortly before the trial, I realised if we were going to get anything at all, I was going to have to get it myself. And I did. Late in the day, I did what he was supposed to and he still sent us an outrageous bill. I was so angry. I said, "How dare you charge so much?"

'He said, "This is a big name law firm, they can afford it." Like, "Oh, this is asbestos litigation, everybody can make a lot of money out of it." I was furious! He thought people's pain could be turned into a cash cow. It felt like everybody had lost sight of what was going on here. I thought, enough is enough. And that's when I started up on my own, six years ago now.'

* * *

It's the stuff of all the best feminist fantasies. The secretary watches what the boss does, figures she can do it herself, and takes over the operation. That's how four British women started their careers, and each of them has made a good living out of the job for more than a decade.

Pat Storey's experience is typical. In spite of being married to a police officer, Pat had no ambitions to be a detective herself until she became the secretary to a private investigator. 'I was like most of the general public who think that you run around in fast cars getting shot at. Of course, it was nothing like that at all. After about two or three years, my boss decided to retire, so I said, "Right, I'm interested enough, I'll buy the business.

Pat hadn't actually been out on the road at that stage, but had learnt the trade from inside the office. This wasn't enough to convince her bank manager so she had to mortgage her home to raise the capital. But she was willing to take the risk. 'I never doubted that I'd make a go of it.'

Yvonne Twiby, Jackie Griffiths and Pam Quinney also learned the job from the inside, watching the detectives, learning from their mistakes, and getting a feel for how the job is done. Yvonne branched out on her own after making the move from secretary to investigator; Pam Quinney was handed the business by her boss who had lost interest and let the agency run itself into the ground.

And Jackie Griffiths set up in business for herself. We met at her home, a trim bungalow that doubles as her office. As we talk, it becomes clear she's not had an easy life; widowed young, with two small daughters to bring up, one afflicted with chronic illness, scarred emotionally and physically by a car crash that left her mother dead. But there is no trace of self-pity, just a stoic determination to get on with life without complaint.

'I started off doing secretarial work for a private investigation agency and the chap I was working for had a minor stroke so he asked me if I fancied doing some of the enquiries,' she says in her soft voice with its slight Welsh lilt. 'I thought I knew enough about it from doing the office work, so I agreed.' When the investigator retired, Jackie went back to secretarial work, until her new employer suggested she start up on her own as a private eye. Within three weeks, Jackie's husband had bought her a desk and had a phone line connected, and she was in business.

* * *

While most women eyes come to the job late in life after having tried other things, some, at the other extreme, have been involved in private investigation since childhood. Susan Balmer is one of these. 'Susan's been a store detective since she was about nine days old,' her mother Brenda admits proudly. 'She was bred to the job! I worked until I was seven months and three weeks pregnant. I was back at work nine days later, with Susan in the pushchair. I used to dump her with whichever sales assistant was nearest when I had to make a collar.'

'The canteen was on the top floor, and customers would see me struggling up the stairs,' Susan chips in. 'They would say, "Eh, hinny, are you lost? Have you lost your mam?" And I would say, "No, I work here!" I used to have problems opening the staff door to the staircase to the canteen because it was so heavy. It got to the point where if the staff saw me heading for the doors, they'd just desert the customers to open the doors for me! I suppose I never really had any choice in what I was going to do for a living; the job chose me.'

Zena Scott-Archer, the longest serving woman investigator in Britain, also grew up in an investigative environment. In a career that has spanned five decades, she climbed from humble filing clerk and report typist to sole proprietor of one of the country's most successful and respected confidential investigation agencies.

No small part of the reason for her success is that she couldn't look less like most people's idea of a gumshoe. No one would ever guess, sitting next to her on a train or in a restaurant, that this elegant, immaculately groomed senior citizen is more familiar with the seedy side of life than the average convicted criminal. I first met Zena when we were both taking part in a local radio chat show. I arrived in the reception area, and announced my presence to the receptionist. I didn't pay a lot of attention to the elderly woman sitting there, except to notice that she looked smart enough to be the captain of the local championship bridge team. I hope I hid my confusion when the presenter's assistant finally emerged and gathered us together to do the programme. By the end of the interview, I had discovered her genteel facade also disguised a quick brain and a wicked sense of humour. If she hadn't been a PI, she'd have made a great actress; whenever she tells a story, she slips into the intonations and body language of the characters, till you can see the whole tale unfold before your eyes.


Excerpted from A Suitable Job for a Woman by Val McDermid. Copyright © 1995 Val McDermid. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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