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Private Investigators, Once All Males, Now Changing in US

  • Ernest Leong

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean." That is how U.S. mystery writer Raymond Chandler once described the American detective. He took it for granted the investigator was a man. But more and more it is a female, not a male detective, who is solving the case. Recent surveys show 15 percent of all private investigators in the U.S. are women. VOA's Ernest Leong has more on the increasing number of women in this male-dominated occupation.

A mysterious woman, the "femme fatale," tells the detective a story that may or may not be true. Men in trench coats and fedoras [brimmed hats] follow each other on dark, crowded streets. A typical Hollywood private eye movie, but Hollywood's depiction of men and women in the detective films is very different from real life.

Joan Beach owns a private investigation firm. A grandmother and former adult probation officer, she is a far cry from the square-jawed men who portray "hard-boiled" detectives in film. Still, Beach says she feels a common bond with her male counterparts. "They [the male private investigators] were entrepreneurs, they were risk takers. They were aggressive. And I'm a risk taker. I look on investigations as a puzzle. Let me put the pieces together. Let me solve something."

A growing number of women share Beach's desire to solve mysteries. Michelle Platt, whose father was a CIA counterintelligence officer, is one of them. Platt, who does undercover work, asked not to be photographed for this interview. "I think I was born with it in my DNA," she says. "Because I've always been into mysteries. I've always been someone that was able to figure things out quickly."

Bill Stollhans, president of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia, says being a private investigator is rewarding and fulfilling work, with appeal to both genders. "There's a lot of self-satisfaction, because you're a people-oriented person. You're dealing with people. And you're getting results to further some goal."

Work in this field involves collaboration, especially in surveillance. Platt, who offers surveillance-training courses to the intelligence community, frequently works with retired government agents. "They [former agents] were chiefs of station. They were case officers overseas at a time when we were combating the Russians in the Cold War. And they have a true ability to understand exactly what is threatening our country and our companies in the post-9/11 era," says Platt.

In one surveillance exercise, Platt's father, Jack, is going to pass some papers to an accomplice. Platt's team will follow her father, nicknamed the "Rabbit" for this operation. Their job is to observe his movements without being discovered.

Platt follows behind, and directs her surveillance team via walkie-talkie. "Good copy. That's probably coming towards you, Ron. Gene, you have the eye."

"The art of a good investigator is one that is able to take their own biases, opinions and emotions out of it, and assess a situation, an individual, a circumstance for what it is, and get down to the heart of the matter. I think women especially excel at this role," says Platt.

The suspect stops at a clock store, and tries to determine whether or not he is being followed.

Platt must decide whether to risk exposure, and send an agent to watch him in the store. "Good copy, good copy. Okay, that's going to be into the clock shop. Gene, I'm going to need you to intrude in there? Copy? Give it one mic." Gene: "Gene, copy, one mic. I'll intrude in the clock shop. Going off air now."

Jack Platt explains the situation. "So when a target goes into a store, for example, if the target is surveillance conscious, he or she [the agent] probably shouldn't have the wind up until about a minute or two after they're in the store. Because it's going to take a surveillance team that long to make its mind up whether to cover that or not."

Next, the target visits the post office -- again, to make sure he is not being followed. He proceeds down the back stairs and up the street to the rendezvous. Although not seen, Platt is nearby, constantly directing, to ensure at least one agent has the suspect under surveillance.

The "Rabbit's" exchange with his confederate takes only a second -- but an agent down the road observes it all. "Package exchange. Gray hair, gray suit, balding in the back."

For men and women, undercover work can be dangerous. Platt says such risks are necessary in order to get results. "If you don't take risks, if you're not willing to have some moxie and give it a shot, then you're not going to get the information you're after. You're not going to get to the individual you're after."

In the movies, the femme fatale is ultimately brought to justice. In the real world, more women are joining the ranks of those who make sure that justice is done.