Helen Cox: 5 Lessons I Learnt From Being a PI for the Day

Murder by the Minster

Helen Cox, author of Murder by the Minster, in the name of book research went undercover to discover what it's really like to be a PI.

Posted on July 1, 2019 in Behind the Scenes
Tags: Helen Cox, Murder by the Minster

‘Can you really be a Private Investigator in the UK?’ I asked my husband one morning. I was contemplating the future character arch of my librarian sleuth, Kitt Hartley over a bowl of cereal, and was toying with the idea of her doing a bit of official PI work.

My husband is a digital historian and thus knows a thing or two about typing just the right terms into the Google search bar. Within a minute he’d found a day workshop entitled ‘PI Experience Day’. Within a fortnight I was enrolled on the course in the name of book research and within the month I was sitting in a pub basement in West London, pen and notebook in hand.

Here are five things I learnt that day about a job that had long intrigued me:

  1. A PI has no more authority than the average UK citizen. They do not have the right to break and enter, look at people’s private records or do any of the 101 other dubious activities you see them engaged in on TV. It is legal under certain circumstances to track people via GPS but there are harassment laws in place that all PIs need to be aware of. Oh, and by the by, private investigation is currently an unregulated industry, which means you could set up shop tomorrow without any formal training. This is not a course of action the course leader in anyway endorsed.
  2. PI work is more than just surveillance. Work might include serving papers on behalf of a local solicitor, researching background information on a person or company, tracking down a missing person and taking statements so you don’t get to play with the Filofax fitted with covert audio recording technology every day. Sorry.
  3. Private Investigators tend to use specific terms for the sake of clarity and concealment. For example, a PI is likely to use the phonetic alphabet in the same way the police might. They also use terms like ‘subject’ to talk about a person they are following, the clock directions to describe to other colleagues watching the subject where they are in a shop, café or bar and words like ‘housed’ and ‘mobile’ to describe whether the subject is in a vehicle or inside a building. Using these words on the workshop almost made me feel like I knew what I was doing… almost. A delusion that leads on nicely to my next point.
  4. A PI cannot have butter fingers. Not only is it likely to draw attention to you at the worst possible moment on a surveillance operation, it’s not helpful when you’re trying to operate a camera disguised as a coffee cup lid. On the mock-surveillance operation we took part in, I managed to take a compelling 7 second video of the ceiling in Westfield shopping mall, while one of my team mates wound up with a twenty minute video of his groin.
  5. Surveillance is not a one person job. The second the subject moves into a crowd, there is a very good chance you’ll lose them if you’re on your own. Ditto if they turn a corner, walk into a subway, board a train further down the platform and so on. You need eyes on that person from as many angles as possible. Without the support of a team who knows what they are doing, you’re likely to go back to the client empty handed, with a video of the inside of your handbag, and little else.

Murder by the Minster is available to buy here.

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