THE moment that dame set foot in my office, I knew she meant trouble. She took a cigarette and I lit a match one-handed. "So," I said. "You want me to take on your case?" She blew smoke in my face and fixed me with those baby blue eyes. "Only if I can see your qualifications, Steve." Who did she think I was - some college kid?
Would-be Philip Marlowes now have the chance to get trained in undercover investigation on Britain's first FE college course for private detectives. Arnold and Carlton College in Nottingham is launching the new 12-week introductory course in a bid to take the amateurs out of sleuthing.
"The private investigation industry does get a bad press," said curriculum manager Gill Barker. "I think the image of the chap walking round with the trilby and the collar up round his ears tends to give people a rather jaundiced view.
"There is no official training that we know of for people such as private detectives. People tend to do it very much on an ad hoc basis. What we're trying to do is to encourage people to do it properly and legally, rather than this covert way of sticking a video camera in your neighbour's garden to catch them chopping your trees down."
The course, expected to start in September, will cover the use of surveillance equipment, including phone tapping and closed circuit television.
Students will also be taught about legal and ethical issues, including the rights and wrongs of surveillance, privacy laws, data protection and civil liberties.
Arnold and Carlton already runs courses in forensic science, criminal investigation skills and security training.
There are only 25 places on the new undercover investigations course, but the college has already had more than 50 enquiries. It is now looking at running two or three short courses and is seeking accreditation.
The surveillance side of the course will be taught by former military and civil police officer Steve Cox, while Gill Barker, a law teacher, will tackle the ethics and legal side. There is also likely to be some teaching input from the investigation business.
The Association of British Investigators, the industry's professional body, has welcomed the new course. Apart from two correspondence courses, there is currently no formal training for private investigators.
Spokesman Peter Heims said: "We would prefer people who start up as private investigators to know at least a bit about the business. If they go on one of these courses it's going to put them a long way towards that.
"There are no laws governing a private investigator. Anybody can be a private investigator. You can come out of prison today and set up in business tomorrow. There's nothing to stop you.
"They say there are 10,000 private investigators in the country, out of which 400 are members of the association. There are a lot of cowboys out there - people who overcharge, who don't give satisfactory service - so we as an association would welcome a move like this. "