A Suitable Job for a Woman

A Suitable Job for a Woman

A series of interviews with women private eyes from both sides of the Atlantic (Great Britain and United States).

About The Author

Val McDermid

One of Britain's most popular authors of contemporary crime fiction, Val McDermid grew up in a Scottish mining community, read ...

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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.

Now a semi-retired consultant, Zena followed in her father’s footsteps. A retired Scotland Yard detective, he opened his agency in Liverpool in 1937. When she joined the busy firm, she had no intention of being a detective. ‘I only joined him as a secretary/dogsbody. I did the filing and I used to type the reports of his agents and I realised that they were very poor accounts. They never described the houses they’d been to, they never managed anything but the sketchiest and most superficial descriptions of people they’d seen. They may have been detectives, but they had no skills in report writing and I got so exasperated that I said to my father one day that I could do better myself! So he said, “Well, go ahead and do it,” and that’s how it started! 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.’

Zena became a partner in 1950, and when her father died in 1953, she took over the business. ‘My father was an empire builder; he had a lot of employees. But when I took over the business I decided to be small and good. And it worked out extremely well for me. I’ve had a wonderful life in the business.’

Being a private eye seems to be in the blood for Susan Neary. Her parents started their agency forty-five years ago. Now semi-retired, they still take on assignments from their retirement homes in the Isle of Wight and Spain. Their agency is now run by Susan’s brother and her uncle. ‘My sister’s the only one who got away,’ she laughs. ‘When I was at school, you daren’t tell anybody what your mum and dad did for a living, because back in those days, they still did a lot of the old-style divorces where you had to prove all the naughty goings on, and private investigators had a really sleazy image. I didn’t care; I knew that what they did was legal, and that’s all that bothered me.

‘I really enjoy what I do, but I don’t think this would have crossed my mind as a career if it hadn’t been for the example of my parents.’

Jennifer Paul and Maureen Jacques-Turner both found the world of private investigation opening up to them because their husbands were in the business. Glasgow-based Jennifer is a mother of two in her late thirties. She looks more like the teacher she used to be than the investigator she now is. ‘I always say it was the male menopause that got me into this. My husband, Brian, was fed up with his job in the garage trade. His brother is a solicitor and he said “You can come and work for me taking statements, it’s easy. You don’t need any qualifications.”

‘I’d quit teaching to have the kids, and I used to type up Brian’s reports and statements. One night he said, “I’ve got to go to Motherwell Police station to take a statement later on, and I fancy a drink, but I can’t have one.” So I said I’d go and do it. It’s a very Scottish way to get into it—going to do a job so my man can have a drink!’

It may have been chance that got her into the job but it was the job itself that made her stay. ‘I’d felt I was slowing down mentally being at home all day with the kids so I was quite glad to start doing this sort of work. It gave me a challenge which I’d missed. It got so that I was out doing the work more and more, and Brian stayed home looking after the kids. Once they both started school, he came back to work full-time and now we’ve got a secretary so I don’t have to do the typing any more!’

Jennifer’s chance entry into the profession is typical of many of the women eyes who fell into the job— having friends in agencies who had vacancies when they needed a job, meeting a PI and deciding it was the job for them, even reading about it in a magazine and setting out to do it. They have come from careers as different as theatre administration, journalism and computing and their stories are as varied and interesting as the women themselves.

# # #

For some the path has been a struggle against convention and institutionalised sexism. Sarah Di Venere is a woman who seems more than ready to take on the world and come up winning. An irrepressible blonde in her late forties, she’s stylish and bursting with energy. A former commodities broker and realtor, she always nursed a secret desire to become a private eye, following in the footsteps of her fictional heroines Nancy Drew and VI Warshawski. Within five minutes of starting our interview, she was showing me her snub- nosed Smith & Wesson with all the eagerness of a child at Christmas.

Packing the pistol back in its shoulder holster, she reveals, ‘I’d always had this fantasy about being an investigator. Then about fifteen years ago, I was in Florida on holiday and I read an article in the local paper about this female PI and she was sixty years old! I thought, this older woman is doing everything I want to do in my life! So I came home and told my boss I was quitting to become an investigator. He said, “How can you do that? You make good money here, and you’re going to be dealing with sleazy people!” I’d been selling real estate in an affluent area of Chicago, dealing with three-piece suit people that don’t have any assets half the time and always tried to welsh on their contracts. I told him, “At least the people I’m going to be dealing with now, I know they are crooks and they know they’re crooks.”’

Sarah went through the state Police Academy, then served her three years’ apprenticeship in one of the city’s biggest agencies. ‘When I started in the business, there were very few female investigators. My boss was an ex-Deputy Superintendent of Police. He thought he was the best investigator in the state of Illinois, and I was the first female investigator he’d ever taken on. He really did not like women. I worked for this guy for four years and if there was a horrible case, I got it. If there was a case on at Christmas, I got it. On Super Bowl day, I got it. A lot of the hours I wasn’t even paid because I was riding shotgun to one of the other investigators and the client was only paying for one person. But I very badly wanted to learn the business and so I did it. They want you to say you won’t do it. They want to throw in your face that you’re a girl. I can honestly say in twelve years in this business I have had to fight that all the time. I still do, but now I don’t take any shit. I’m my own boss.’

For Byrna Aronson it wasn’t just sexism that had to be contended with. She’s a blue-collar radical lesbian feminist living and working in Boston, one of the most conservative and class-ridden cities in America.

‘The banks run Boston,’ Byrna explains. ‘They run it in more ways than you usually think of. There’s something called the Vault which is an unofficial group of executives from all the banks and big corporations who meet. Every mayor, every executive of the city has to deal with them and if they don’t like your policies then you have a problem. These are not elected people, this is a self-perpetuating oligarchy.’

Growing up in a city so driven by politics, it’s scarcely surprising that they have played a large part in Byrna’s choice of career. ‘My political background is the major reason why I’m a private investigator,’ she admits, lighting another of the long slim cigarettes that punctuate her conversation. When she first graduated, Byrna wanted to become a lawyer but research showed that since the Bar Association, which ultimately decides who becomes an attorney, had a morals clause, she would have little chance if she were an open lesbian. ‘If I was going to be open about being a lesbian the best I could hope for was being a test case with no guarantee about the outcome.’

Unwilling to go through four years of under-grad school, and three years of law school to be a test case, she dropped out of her law degree and went to business school in Philadelphia to learn secretarial skills.

One evening Byrna was arrested in a police raid on a lesbian club. ‘That night was the start of my real political education. We got moved around from precinct to precinct all night, they were bouncing us around, treating us like shit, screaming at us, sexually handling us, making fun of us, not letting us sit down, not letting us stand up, not letting us go to the bathroom. I’d had a matron attempt to shove my head down a toilet when she finally let me go to the toilet after three hours of asking. It was a really remarkable and charming night!

‘We got into the courtroom next morning, tired and dirty, and to my amazement there was a lawyer there waiting for us, and there was this handful of women sitting there from one of the gay organisations. They had stayed up the whole night, following us from precinct to precinct. Then the cops read out their story, which was full of lies. So we were charged with sodomy and some other things. But the judge just dismissed all charges. I heard tell later that he had been bought off, but I don’t know if that’s true. Unfortunately, we all now had an arrest record with fingerprints which also goes to the FBI, standard operating procedure.

‘But I am eternally grateful for that hideous night because of the way it affected me for the rest of my life. I started to understand that a lot of what I believed about this country wasn’t true. And that who ran things wasn’t who we were told ran things. That the privileges and rights we thought we had we really didn’t. That the police were corrupt. And that a lot of people liked it that way.

‘That night was also probably the first in a series of events that brought me into investigating for a living. I started wanting to know what was really going on and who really ran things. I started doing investigations from a political perspective. I wanted to know who really owns things. I wanted to know what the laws really said. I wanted to know who made those laws. I wanted to know the names of the people behind the corporations. I wanted to know who was paying the money to the corrupt cops.’

Byrna started researching legal and corporate records, doing surveillance, taking photographs, many of the jobs that make up a private investigator’s work.

It took a very public event to turn Byrna from political activist to private eye. She was walking down a street in Philadelphia hand in hand with her girlfriend, Val, when a police patrol car pulled up across the street and the patrolman hailed them. Thinking it was just the usual hassle lesbians and gay men had been fighting for so long, Byrna got stroppy with him. The patrolman said he wasn’t interested in hassling them, but that Val looked just like Susan Sachs, a woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Within minutes, the street was choked with police cars, state police cars, FBI—a hundred cops, all with their guns cocked and pointing at Byrna and Val.

The officer had been right, ‘Val’ admitted to Byrna that she hadn’t told her the truth about her identity, and that she was indeed Susan Sachs, one of the two Most Wanted women in America. The reason Susan was on the Most Wanted list was because of her participation in a bank robbery where a cop had died. Susan was involved with the radical Anti-War Movement, protesting against the Vietnam War, and to raise funds, they’d taken to robbing banks. In this instance, Susan had been one of the three robbers. The lookout man left behind got into a shoot-out with the cops and one cop died.

Byrna stood by Susan and began working as an investigator for the lawyers on her case. The trial ended with a hung jury and Susan opted for a plea bargain that gave her seven years in prison because she didn’t want to exploit the resources of the community any further with a second trial, and she already had an eight-year sentence on other charges. Byrna may have hoped for a better outcome, but working on the trial gave her new inspiration.

‘I decided that I could do this for the rest of my life. I moved back to Boston, and started working for a law firm here. The more I did it, the more I liked it. I watched the difference it made when we got involved in a case from day one and the legal resources of our firm were applied to that person’s case. How between the good lawyering and the good investigating and the good research, we could make a huge difference in people’s lives, not least because police investigations were so shitty.

‘The gay community, the women’s community, the left community had nobody they could trust. If they got charged with crimes, not necessarily politically associated ones, they needed someone who had some credibility within the community to work on their behalf. Now, I knew that people would talk to me who wouldn’t talk to anybody else. I felt that my community, however broadly you want to define that, could use the resources of somebody with my skills. So I eventually decided that I wanted to become a licensed investigator and open my own business.’

She had to fight against prejudice to get her licence. Women detectives were rare at the time, let alone open lesbians with FBI records. The political beliefs that made her determined to fight such prejudice now inform the work she does.

‘Some of my clients pay me off at $25 a month. It’s very important to me to spend not only my private time but also my work time working for change and even though it’s a Band Aid approach, not only do I not have any trouble looking at myself in the mirror every morning, but I know I make a difference and I know I can be counted on for the people that I end up doing work for and they tend to be people that wouldn’t have access ordinarily.’

# # #

As Byrna and Sarah’s experiences show, getting into a masculine profession isn’t always easy but each woman who does it paves the way for others. Most of the women eyes I spoke to actively support others in the field, employing women in their agency and helping each other out on cases. When Joan Beach first got her licence she had to struggle to get work, and most of it came from female attorneys who were also struggling against sexism in their chosen profession. These women gradually developed a solid and supportive community of friends.

‘Now some of them are judges, some are heading up firms and they’ve become a great source of referrals. And now guys think it’s great for their image hiring women.’ With positive support like this, it seems likely that there will be more women finding their way into private investigation in the future.

Already, some women eyes, like Sandra Sutherland, have built up their businesses into international concerns and become leaders in their fields. Others prefer to keep their businesses small and local but they all pride themselves in the job they do. Whatever their choice, and whatever way they came into the work, these women have found independence and satisfaction in being a PI. Despite any difficulties their gender may cause them, they firmly believe it is a job perfectly fitting to their sex.

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