This article appeared in The National Times April 26 - May 2 1981 p 33
a true detective story . . .
THERE was dust on the naked desk and the room looked forgotten. I felt the one cigarette butt in the big blue ashtray. It was quite cold. The goldfish were alive but withering fast in the heat.
The filing cabinet was empty. The desk drawers were empty. Looked like someone had moved out their personal effects in a hurry and left behind a few trinkets. Like the guns. All four of them.
Things had been kinda slow lately in the sleuthing business. The joint was not sealed up after all. Someone was coming.
He bounced into the room and what hit my eye first where the diamonds glued to one finger. The gems helped themselves to all the light in the darkened room.
He introduced himself and said, not too menacingly, that he wouldn't like to see his name in print. We'll call him Randolph. He needs protection because trouble is his business.
Like I said, things have been a bit slow for the snoops lately. Divorce used to be a profitable fallback from many of them. Under the old Act, it was often an advantage to prove adultery, either to expedite divorce or to win a fatter property settlement.
So people hired snoops to record infidelities. The agent would lurk about in the bushes, and at a promising moment he and a couple of brawny sidekicks would shoulder open the door, burst in and get busy with a camera. Flash Flash Flash.
"Divorce work was hard work," said Randolph. "You had to knock down doors and all sorts of stuff. Only by the grace of God did you come out unscathed." Amen.
Although divorce raids muddied their reputations, they were at least left with a fund of bizarre anecdotes.
There was one raid where, as usual, the front door "flew open," then the bedroom door "flew open" and the agent heard strange sounds like this: "arr arrr arr," and a man's voice saying, "it's all right, darling." The lights went on and the agent found a large mongrel dog in bed with the bloke. It was a set up.
"A lot of clients have big mouths," said Philip, who is Randolph's junior partner.
Then there was the time Randolph accompanied by other agents and a woman client raided her husband.
"The door flew open with such force that couple behind it skidded down the hallway." They tried the first bedroom door. A strange couple were making love. The second bedroom flew open and there lay another couple not known to them. They found the husband in the fourth bedroom they entered. The young woman with him, no doubt aroused by all this banging of doors, was clambering out a window. Flash Flash Flash.
It was clear why private eyes call the Family Law Act "Murphy's Folly" or "The Casanova Bill." It costs them dear. About a third of Randolph's business used to be in divorce. Another snoop, an ex-CIB copper, said his business had fallen off by 50 per cent.
So how did the average sleuth survive in this man's world? "You've got to diversify," said Philip casually, as if he ingested Rydge's with his Wheaty Flakes every morning.
Philip did not exactly match my ideal of a private eye. Admittedly there was his weird office with the with the withering goldfish. Maybe he felt safer with the joint looking as though he had fled to Paraguay months ago.
That apart, he was disconcertingly ordinary. Right down to his uncertain ginger moustache and his virile scent Reuben F. Scarf tie.
I remembered the story about the agent who had not only the heel but also the toe of hiss winkle-picker boots shot off on his first night as a gumshoe. Another apparently innocent case gone wrong. The agent ran away as fast as he could and was never sighted again.
It seemed an opportune time to tell the private eye that the company we had just served with a wind-up notice was part of a large corporation owned by a millionaire. "You never know," said Philip.
He took me to lunch at the Marrickville RSL. Every sleuth needs a decent club. The particular beauty of this one was that the sound of a zillion poker machines in action would probably foil the most sophisticated surveillance equipment. We ordered ham steaks with pineapple: mine came without the pineapple. Was it a signal of some kind?
We didn't drink. There was a heavy caper on after lunch. It was a leftover from the case of the golden earrings 14 years earlier. A man Randolph then traced for a client eventually landed in court. He has since spent much of his time persecuting Randolph, as well is the judge and others involved in the case.
He once sent the judge a threatening letter by registered mail and copped 18 months in the slammer. So he started delivering his poison pen messages by hand. He has pasted up signs about these supposed enemies of his all over Sydney.
The signs about Randolph run like this: "Public Notice Crime Does Not Pay. Maltese Mafia Boss Randolph Valentino of X Street, Sydney. This smelly sewer rat is a Justice of the Peace Bludger. TAX DODGER. Company Director. Welcher. CANCER OF SOCIETY. Blackmailer. Extortionist. Conspirator (much more of the same)."
The man has taken to calling Randolph The Maltese Falcon. The private eye was quick to point out that he is not even Maltese.
We were to serve this rhetorical obsessive with a contempt of court notice. He had ignored the court order to stop harassing Randolph and his family. I hoped he wouldn't discover my name. I decided I would rather have the toes of my winkle-picker shoes shot out then be plagued by a twisted publicist for the rest of my life.
No worries. He sheltered behind closed venetian blinds and refused to answer the door knock.
We headed back to base. No, the sleuths wouldn't tell me about the Missing Persons job that was about to take them to Hawaii.
No. I couldn't accompany them on armed payroll patrol. I was to print nothing about the chicken wire murder caper, either.
"I am looking for glamour, adventure, danger." I said desperately.
Randolph was scornful. Any private eye who claimed the job was glamorous was a liar, or a fool, he said. Most of it was plain hard graft. "It all becomes routine after a while."
What about the legendary American sleuthes. It couldn't be that different down under. Randolph gave the reporter a pitying look.
He said to his junior partner: "Do you remember that private eye win met in San Francisco. The dapper little guy in the pork-pie hat. In his car he had guns that pop out, two-way radios, telephones, tracking systems. And when he got out of his car he was about the 4ft 1in. You could have breathed out and knocked him over. He said he was ex-CIA."
So much for the epic. It was after 6pm. Time for a hard-working gumshoe to be home for dinner with the wife and kids.
I noticed it for the first time when I left the place. Randolph's office is between a topless bar and an adult products shop. If you put that in the story they'll never believe you, I thought. In this job you get very suspicious.
There was, though, a quiet tough confidence about him. I hoped it was contagious. In search of an epic I was to spend the day as a vicarious gumshoe, trailing in Philip's wake.
We headed up a dark passageway past more demented goldfish and into Randolph's office to receive instructions. Another twist. Flash Randolph with his diamonds big as a cow's belly in August inhabited an office gemutlich as roast dinner. Family photographs. Christmas presents and souvenirs from Missing Persons trips abroad, dripped from every shelf.
The one oddity was the full-sized kayak standing on its pointy end against a wall.
For shooting the rapids when you've lost your guns, I suggested alertly. Wrong again. "We need it when people whizz off on boats with other people's wives," said Philip. "We chuck it on a van."
The kayak was not needed that day. Philip strapped on his shoulder holster instead.
The first call was in Cronulla, a beachside suburb on the southern outskirts of Sydney. We travelled in a primrose yellow Daihatsu van.
Philip said: "A lot of private inquiry agents act like toy cops. They drive around in Holdens or Falcons with conspicuous aerials. They have the cars registered in March, like police cars, and they dress in grey suits and hats . . . Main thing about me is, you wouldn't pick me. I keep a tracksuit in the car.
"If I have someone under surveillance, I'll jump into the tracksuit and start running. If they see you in a suit three times they'll notice."
The great Australian disguise was in the back of the van. Shorts, thongs and a cossie. That way he could shadow a supposedly supine compo case down to the beach and merge with the beer-bronzed masses.
According to Philip our mission was to serve a wind-up notice on a company that had neglected to pay an employee some $1,500.
"You could smell him there for a week." said Randolph. What a mute, inglorious finale.
We pushed against the door of the office. Truly, it flew open. Philip gave the receptionist a quick gander at the writ and asked to see the accountant. There was a sudden hush. You could have heard a Mauser drop.
A pasty, heavy-set joker moved towards us. He was in gold-rimmed specs, a matching gold tie and a suit that would have seen him through a reincarnation as an undertaker.
Even my untrained eye saw that it was a superb disguise for a man who claimed to be manager of the company. He accepted the writ but the corners of his mouth were twitching. Surely it wasn't mirth. Was he about to crack and bare his leg strap holster to the assembled clerks? We backed out hastily.
I kept the glancing ahead to see whom we were secretly tracking. Philip glanced in the rear vision to see who was furtively following us.
"In this job you get very suspicious," he said.
We saw the windswept sand dunes of Cronulla. I was contemplating the risk. Randolph had told me about the caper when he went to ask a client's stray husband to sign some papers.
"I knocked, I womanl opened the door, and then the husband thumped me on the chin so hard I went through a double set of plate glass doors. He put the boot in, then he got a German Mauser rifle. Another agent came in to see what was happening.
"You got the rifle butt on his head and it lifted his scalp. He needed 32 stitches. Then the bloke chased us in a brand new car, a Chev."
We parked and sauntered to the main office of the Cronulla company. No way that I'd recognise a Mauser rifle if someone pointed it out me.