According to Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a lot of reality TV, being a private detective is awesome. Or so I thought until I attended a stakeout with a guy I'll call Dave.
Dave is a Melbourne PI with Lyonswood Investigations, and I met him during his third day outside a St. Kilda apartment. He'd been watching the place on 14-hour shifts from his hatchback, which made me quickly realize that a lot of PI mythology is, in fact, mythical. I sat in with Dave for a few hours, and he ran me through his processes, his musical preferences, and what he does for toilet breaks.
VICE: Hey, Dave, what are we doing here?
Dave: We're waiting here to serve a court summons. Normally you'd just knock on the door and hand them over. But this person is a little tricky because they're hard to get hold of. So when we see the guy we'll follow and hand the papers over. This is a somewhat unique case, though.
Why is it unique? What sort of work do you usually do?
All sorts. You've got corporate jobs where you're working for a larger company that wants a particular aspect of their business looked into. Then you've got your WorkCover jobs. In those situations the insurance company wants to know if a person on benefits is genuinely injured. Then you get your private jobs where the husband or wife thinks a partner is cheating.
Do you have a favorite?
I do like the private stuff. You end up doing things like going into a restaurant to record a conversation while you're having a meal. It's quite exciting, whereas a lot of your WorkCover and corporate jobs mean sitting in a car for hours and then going home. It can be pretty draining sitting in a car for hours.
Yes, as I'm discovering. How do you go to the toilet?
Well, you have a wee bottle. I use an orange-juice bottle, actually. Then there's number twos, and in the early days I had a little toilet-type thing. But now if I really need to go, I just go. You just hope that when you come back nothing has changed. I've heard of people blowing jobs because they went to the toilet.
What is your favorite music to follow someone?
When I follow people I used to like Neil Diamond. Anything that's a little mellow. But when you're on the follow you go from being very relaxed to being stressed. You're like, Shit, I don't want to lose them! You could have been waiting for 12 hours for a guy and then lose him in five minutes. So nowadays I usually have the radio off just because I need to concentrate.
What about clothing? Do you dress in a particular way?
Generally I go for darker clothing. You also need something that looks neat anywhere. If I'm doing multiple follows I'll put my baseball cap on and change my top so nobody recognizes me.
Run me through how you plan a surveillance job.
I always check out the area before I go. Country roads are difficult because there's nobody around and you're much more obvious. If I'm on a straight road I immediately know I can sit as far away as possible. Some people are looking for someone watching them. If you're really careful you're probably up to something dodgy. If someone is looking for surveillance they're normally looking in the first few kilometers around home. But once they're driving they're much more relaxed.
What do you think makes a good private investigator?
You've got to have patience and integrity. You also need to be reliable and honest. People put a lot of trust in you. Sometimes they're telling you things that they wouldn't tell their closest friends. There's a lot of hidden responsibility to this job.
In the end, no one emerged from the apartment and I went home. Dave is still on the job, for all I know.