Sunday, September 13, 2009

Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts

I’ve always been fascinated by private investigators, so I was interesting in reading an ARC that described the life and experiences of a female detective. Cici McNair’s memoir Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts: True Adventures of a Female P.I.was much like its author – vivid and rambling and unusual. A distaff Remington Steele this is not.

Originally a Southern belle, McNair turned globetrotter and lived through adventures in other countries before she moved to New York and decided to become a private investigator. Her lack of a background in law enforcement put her at a disadvantage, since she had no experience and no permit to carry a gun. And more than one PI was suspicious of her rootless past.

“There are various rumors to the effect that you are with the Central Intelligence Agency. That you are a plant.”

“What?” I exploded. If I’m a plant, then I want to be a geranium, went absurdly through my mind.

Eventually, though, she started working for a firm from which even other investigators warned her away. And from then on it was stakeouts and taped conversations, recording the numbers of license plates while pretending to search for a lost dog, showing up at court in a bright orange wig so no one would recognize and attack her.

So much of a private investigator’s work seems to be done on the phone and on the fly, making up stories at each turn and keeping them all straight somehow. McNair has an unstoppable determination, an enjoyment of acting and the ability to notice and memorize a lot of details. Those carried her through dealings with counterfeiters, sweatshop owners and a gang called “Born to Kill”, all set against the gritty and flamboyant backdrop of New York.

My favorite such story is the one where, when dealing with a group of Middle Easterners believed to be stealing jewelry designs, she bluffs her way into a meeting. Carrying a tape recorder but no ID for her new persona (and of course no gun), she wonders what will happen if the suspects see through her. She figures she can hold a tampon before her and tell them “Unclean woman making an exit!”

Some of the stories of her past, which are interwoven with what’s happening in the here-and-now, are just as funny. Especially the one where she playfully twirls a diplomat’s walking-stick, only to be told that it’s a concealed gun which contains a bullet.

Towards the end, though, these stories became a bit too colorful. By the time I got to the end and read about the Welshman who was secretly engaged to an Irish lunatic while he wooed McNair in Cyprus, I was a little tired of the parade of exotic but weird boyfriends – gunrunners, barons, drug lords, etc.

Other than that, though, this book was an entertaining read that nevertheless taught me more about private investigations than a lot of TV shows did. I think in the future I’ll see that particular profession with a little more realism than glamour.


Barbara Martin said...

I loved your comment about the plant.

I know a P.I. who rarely goes outside his office, and uses computer and telephone for his job.

From what you indicate McNair's background is, I would think much of this is fabricated and would never entertain a thought of reading this book.

Angela Ackerman said...

I've always liked female PI's because it goes against the whole 'man's world' cliche. One YA I adore is the Enola Homes series, where the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes becomes a detective, solving cases her brother cannot, all the while staying out of his clutches so that she is not forced to 'return to her rightful place in society as a lowly female.'

Marian Perera said...

Hi Barbara,

The colorful background did come off as not entirely plausible, but it was probably juiced up to contrast with the here-and-now reality of doing a difficult job for ten dollars an hour.

At one point, though, I started to wonder just what the author had to attract all those men. You'd think a good private investigator would look more inconspicuous than gorgeous.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Angela,

I love the premise of that series, but the name Enola makes me think of Ebola (my background is in microbiology).

I'll still keep the books in mind, though. :)