How to be a private detective (by post)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Down these mean streets a man must go..." Raymond Chandler wrote in 1950, adding one of the most memorable phrases to the considerable mythology of the macho private eye. But were the king of pulp fiction to return to the naked city 45 years on, he'd discover that it's no longer strictly true. For unlike his hardbitten forebears, today's aspiring PI can put his feet up when the streets look too mean, and take refuge in a correspondence course.

For pounds 19.95 a month, Rotherham's Streetwise School of Private Investigation provides a 10-part home study course, devised by three investigators. "As a private detective," the school's promotional booklet observes, "you are guaranteed healthy respect and admiration from those around you. You will quite naturally become more interesting to others."

Or, if that doesn't appeal, for pounds 299.40 - gold-blocked ring-binder included - rookie sleuths can enrol in the year-long Medina Home Study Course of Private Investigation, with an option on another 12-month Master Investigator course to follow. "We think you'll agree that there are few jobs nowadays which offer any excitement," the glossy brochure declares. "Most are dull, boring and routine. The exceptions are probably the emergency services and the armed forces."

But can the life of a Nineties gumshoe really be this exciting or are these courses just cynically playing on Dick Barton-ish fantasies? "We try to dispel the illusions of glamour from the beginning," says John Harrison, who publishes and administers Streetwise's study programme. "You're not going to be driving around in a Ferrari, you'll be driving a Ford Escort more like. An Escort in Wigan is different to Magnum's Ferrari in Hawaii. And a lot of the time the training is mundane. In part one, we send them down to the local library to dig out the phone numbers of company directors."

In 18 months, Harrison says, the Streetwise course has attracted more than 1,000 students. Some want the skills to cope with specific problems: lost relatives and straying lovers. Others have less obvious motives: "We did have a school lollipop lady. She was about 70. I'm not sure what she was after, but I hope she got out of it what she wanted." Others - more than 40 so far - have made the grade, going on to set up their own businesses.

Private investigation is - as your school careers advisor would have told you - a profession that has little formal career structure. Where some larger firms do train new investigators, setting them up in a franchised office, the fees they charge tend to be astronomical. One agency demands a total of pounds 32,500 for this service. In the light of this, Harrison insists that his study programme usefully fills a gap in the market, and does so cheaply.

"Prior to this course, you could start on your own from scratch, perhaps having left the police, making it up as you go along. Or you could join an established agency. But there aren't that many openings."

Even former police officers, Harrison adds, may struggle in their new environment. "It's a different situation altogether once they're separated from their warrant cards. They have to use a lot more persuasion rather than authority. And they're probably not used to running a business."

Not everyone sees it this way, however. Three years ago, John O'Connor was a commander at New Scotland Yard, now he's an investigator for Europol Associates. What does he think about learning the tricks of the trade by post? "It's a load of crap really," he says. "The bottom line is that you're broking information, and all the business comes through networking. If you go on a course and then put an advert in Yellow Pages, you'll go broke in a week."

Streetwise School of Private Investigation, Rotherham, S Yorks (01709 820033)

Medina School of Private Investigation, Reading, Berks (01734 462606)

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