I have always been an aficionado of mystery and detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes is my favourite sleuth, followed by Dixon Hawke (naturally so, as I wrote a number of stories about him), Sexton Blake and a few others. I often wondered, though, what private detection was like in reality. In the late 1960’s I found out.
It came about as the result of a chance meeting in a Tamworth pub with Sam Bradley, a retired police sergeant turned sleuth. Sam had been an old fashioned copper and in his own words, “when I came off duty I changed into civvies and went back out there to find out what the local crooks were up to.”
We chatted and eventually he enquired how much free time I had, evenings and weekends. As it was I had recently closed my small cartridge loading business and I was looking for a new challenge.
“I’ve got a lot of enquiries on,” he went on, “too much work in fact. I could use an assistant. If you fancy earning a bit of extra cash I’ll show you the ropes and we’ll see where we go from there.”
So I began accompanying Sam two or three evenings a week. Work varied from debt collecting and serving writs to observation in order to gather evidence for divorce proceedings. Sometimes we had a long, cold wait in a street waiting for a particular car to arrive and park outside a house which we were watching. Sam made a note of the vehicle’s registration, noted its time of arrival and sometimes its departure.
Debt collecting was often an unpleasant business. Excuses led to a confrontation bordering on physical violence. Sam was a big, florid-faced man, not to be trifled with. I knew that I had a difficult and risky act to follow.
A month or so later my colleague informed me that I was now capable of working solo. Each week he provided me with a handwritten sheet of pending jobs and a few guidance notes where necessary.
Private detection was nowhere near as glamorous as I had believed in my naivety. It was simply hard graft combined with common sense and an ability to observe.
There was one investigation which I shall always remember, light relief from checking out extra-marital affairs. A lady living in a village asked me to call as a matter of urgency. Over a cup of tea she explained the nature of her problem.
She had an on-going feud with her neighbour, a bad-tempered old widower who never ceased to complain about anything and everything. Now, suddenly, a few of her prized rose bushes were dying and she was certain that he was creeping in through the sparse adjoining hedge and poisoning them. Would I be good enough to undertake a nocturnal vigil?
We agreed a fee and the following evening just before dusk I seated myself on a bucket just inside her rickety garden shed and propped the door ajar.
It was damned cold and a severe frost was setting in. Next door’s lights were still on and I was willing the old chap to decide on an early night. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to retire, though.
The nearby church clock struck ten. Then, after what seemed an eternity, eleven. By midnight my feet were numb. In all probability nothing would happen and the lady had imagined it all.
Suddenly I heard the neighbour’s back door open and a gruff voice said, “go on, make it quick, it’s bleedin’ freezin’ out here.”
Something was snuffling about on the other side of the hedge, then I heard the brushing of branches like somebody or something was pushing their way through. Undoubtedly a dog had been let out to do its final business of the day.
A sound like a tap being turned on reached my ears. I leaned forward, switched my torch on and its beam revealed a large boxer dog cocking its leg against one of those rose bushes. Mystery solved! I could not resist a smile as I went back indoors, explained to a surprised and embarrassed client why her rose bushes were dying, pocketed my fee and went home.
Then, a few weeks later, Sam died from a sudden heart attack. I had lost a good friend and maybe I would have packed up the detective business there and then except for the fact that I had one of his files in which there were several outstanding jobs. Well, I owed it to him to finish those which I had agreed to undertake.
For some reason, being in sole charge of a number of investigations motivated me. He had told me about the Victor Meek College of Private Detection, based in Exeter, suggesting I might enrol on one of their courses. So, I did just that.
It was a 4 month course and I can honestly say that it was a lot more interesting than the work I had been engaged upon previously. It covered both practice and theory, and the former was more like that which I had envisaged private detection to be.
One learned how to follow a suspect without being seen. You went to a busy town area such as a bus or railway station and singled out your ‘victim’ from the disembarking passengers. Then you trailed him, or her, keeping your distance.
Another lesson was learning to eavesdrop in a crowded pub or cafe. Again, choosing your ‘suspects’, you bought a drink and sat at a table a little distance from them. The knack was in learning to shut out the buzz of conversation all around and concentrate on theirs without looking at them and thus drawing attention to yourself. It isn’t easy but it can be done, a mental exercise in concentration. Eventually I mastered the art.
Examination time arrived and I passed, ‘First Class with Honours’ and received my certificate, together with an identification card. Then it was back to the old familiar ‘grindstone’, debt collecting, status enquiries and observing adulterers.
A few months later I decided that I had had enough. I had cleared up Sam’s backlog so I decided to call it a day.
It had not been a waste of time though, for I had learned a lot about the seedy side of life with a few minor crooks thrown in for good measure. All of which was good experience for the future when I became a full-time writer.