Nicks and Noras in the Real World: The Thin & the Thick of It By Colleen Collins
Husband and Wife Sleuthing Teams
Most of you know about Nick and Nora Charles, the husband and wife private detective team in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. William Powell and Myrna Loy played Nick and Nora in the 1934 movie of the same name, the first in the popular six-film series. While wise-cracking, canoodling, and imbibing martinis, they also managed to solve a murder or two.
Before my husband returned to being a criminal lawyer, we worked together for over a decade as a real-life private eye team. Even today we sometimes still work cases together for his law practice.
As much as I like to think we held our own in the Nick-and-Nora wise-cracking department, only one of us drank martinis, and we never solved a murder, although we investigated and solved a few attempted murder cases. However, just as Nick and Nora had their terrier Asta, we worked cases with our Rottweiler Aretha, who has sat on innumerable surveillances, helped serve legal papers, and once climbed part way up a mountain where we investigated the scene of a “ski” crime.
Hollywood vs. Real-Life: Glitz vs. Grunge
Hollywood movies often show the sparkling highlights of a case, whereas the day-to-day digging for evidence can be a grind, sometimes with no viable clues surfacing for weeks at a time. And the film version of surveillances is fiction at its finest—it’s rare that a sleuth-mobile can follow a subject’s vehicle for hours on end. Yours truly has been a PI since 2003, and only once did I successfully follow a subject’s vehicle for hours...and I credit that singular success to the subject not being the brightest mental-bulb on the planet.
Pros and Cons of Being a Married PI Team
For the most part, both my husband and I found sleuthing together to be fun. We had our tense moments, but we enjoy each other’s company and like to make each other laugh, plus there’s nothing like the thrill of cracking a case.
Differing Work Styles: The Good, the Bad, and the Are You Crazy?
My husband and I fit the “opposites who attract” category. He’s a big-picture person, I focus on the details. He can wing it on little data, I like to be overly prepared. Our strengths can work amazingly well together; other times, we can drive each other more than a little nuts.
Here’s one example of how our traits mesh well. On a rolling surveillance, meaning a surveillance in a vehicle, I can count on my husband to calmly tackle the major issues, from finding a subject we’ve lost in traffic to fixing a flat tire. And he counts on my organization and planning — I’ll know the subject’s physical description down to their birthmarks, even how they walk and talk.
An example of how our traits clash. Once we rolled up to a huge dumpster outside an apartment complex for a trash hit (where evidence is retrieved from people’s garbage). The dumpster was too high to get into without using a step or box, neither of which were available, so Mr. Big Picture said he’d hoist me into the dumpster, to which Ms. Detail snapped, “Are you crazy? How do I get out? Fly?” It was a long drive home to retrieve a small step ladder, so we ended up parking close to the dumpster and my husband used the car hood as a platform to get in/out of the mess o’ garbage.
By the way, over the years we became expert trash hitters, solving all kinds of cases via trash, such as finding abducted children, discovering affairs, assessing a child’s living conditions, determining if a witness lived at a certain address, locating bank accounts, and more.
Below are a few articles and resources featuring real-life private eye teams:
For These Married Detectives, Truth is More Fun Than Fiction (Westword Magazine, 2011, about Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman): http://www.westword.com/news/for-these-married-denver-detectives-truth-is-more-fun-than-fiction-5113800
Hart & Hart May Be Prime-Time Private Eyes, But Jack and Sandra Are For Real (People Magazine, 1979. An older article, but still interesting especially for those setting a story in this timeframe): http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20074773,00.html
Pursuit Magazine, the magazine of professional investigators, is managed by a husband and wife PI team (Hal Humphreys and Kim Green). Great information about private investigations in general: http://pursuitmag.com/
Colleen Collins (colleencollinsbooks.com) is a PI and award-winning author of mystery, romance, and nonfiction. Her private investigations blog, Guns, Gams & Gumshoes, was a Mystery Month web crush by the American Library Association’s Booklist in 2011 and 2014, and named one of the top three true crime blogs by Ellery Queen magazine in 2010. Her next release, How Do Private Eyes Do That? (second edition) will be released in June 2016.