Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts

True Adventures of a Female P.I.


By Cici McNair

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Growing up in Mississippi, Cici McNair was always more the tomboy her mother supported than the Southern belle her father demanded. She escaped her suffocating upbringing the first chance she had to travel the world. Whether working at the Vatican in Rome or consorting with a gunrunner in Haiti, she lived a life of international adventure. When Cici finds herself in New York, divorced, broke, and fashionably starving to death in a Madison Avenue apartment, she impulsively decides to become a private detective.

But, as Cici soon learns, the world of P.I.s is tight-knit and made up almost exclusively of former law enforcement officers. By nature, they are a highly suspicious group and are especially wary of a newcomer with an untraceable past. Diligently working her way through the Yellow Pages, doggedly pursuing the slightest lead, Cici is finally hired by a private investigator willing to take a chance. The next day she’s working side by side with a pair of seasoned detectives and a skip tracer who is scary to meet but like silk on the phone. She quickly realizes she’ll need all her energy and wits to succeed in this new world.

Being a private investigator is as exciting and liberating as Cici ever dreamed, from creating a false identity on the spot on her first case in the field to surviving adrenaline-rushing car chases. Working with law enforcement, she goes undercover, dealing with the ruthless Born to Kill gang in Chinatown and the Middle Eastern counterfeiters west of Broadway. A detailed account of the hidden world and real-life cases of a P.I., this action-packed memoir is as entertaining as any detective novel you’ve ever read.



Copyright © 2009 by Clarissa McNair

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59995-266-6

This book is dedicated to all the men I've spent the night with in a parked car, to every partner on a stakeout, to all the private investigators who let me watch them, who taught me…

with boundless gratitude to Kevin F. Dougherty and Anthony G. Spiesman.

I also dedicate this book to my mother,

Clarissa Walton McNair, and to my patron saint,

Giacomo Casanova. Their blithe spirits inspire me to be

curious and optimistic, resourceful, relentless, and brave.


Thank you to Vinny Parco for having the imagination to hire me when no one else would give me a chance. I'll never forget that. You changed my life.

Thank you to Glenn Hales for being my ally and for all I learned from you.

Thank you to Mary Ellen Young, who is always in my heart. Beautiful, strong, and true. My moral compass from the age of eleven and a last surviving witness to the craziness on the Old Canton Road.

Thank you to Dorothea Halliday, who is a production editor without equal. Her big, beautiful, brilliant brain and her love of the English language delighted me. She truly understands nuance.

For common sense, for shelter, for professional expertise and for cheering me on: Arthur G. Altschul, David M. Anderson, Pete Beveridge, Lawrence Block, James C. Esposito, Elizabeth Gainsborough, Frank Gray, Heather Hanley, Caro Heller, Vivienne Heston-Demirel, Charley Hill, Charles Intriago, Herbert Irvine, Perri Klass, Julie Lombard, Diana Marley-Clarke, Renwick Matthews, Judith Natalucci, Hayko Oltaci, Sesto Quercetti, Stanley Rosenfeld, Avery Russell, Robert Spiel, Litsa Tsitsera, Arish Turle, Baroness von Goetze-Claren, Baroness von Karger, Sian Willson, Larry Wolff, and Hervé Zany.


When my agent said my manuscript was being sold as a memoir, I thought it was wildly pretentious to label my capers that lovely French word. Almost as lovely as surveillance.

Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts is exactly as I saw and heard the events, as true a surveillance as I can present. I did change most of the names and some of the identifying details, but there is no conscious embellishment. How could anyone possibly embellish Vinny or Mickey or my mother?

I'm named after my mother. I'm the fifth Clarissa in her family; the first Clarissa was born before the Civil War, a Quaker in Pennsylvania. In my detective life and on my business cards, I am Cici McNair, P.I., so this book is written by that persona.

I hope you will be inspired by my adventures and driven to do what makes you feel most alive. Sail into the eye of the storm.

As Ben Kingsley said in Sexy Beast, "It's not the money, is it? It's the charge, the buzz, the bolt. The sheer fuck-off of it all."

That's it. That's exactly what it is. Detectives don't wear seat belts.

Clarissa McNair aka Cici McNair, P.I.


Starting with Poison


April Fools' Day, 1994.

"Relax! Lemme do the work. Go limp." Errol grasped my thumb, pressed it in the ink, and then rolled it on the paper. Hard. "Relax," he commanded again.

Barbie Doll was on the phone saying, "No, no, no. Mr. Parco is unavailable," as Vinny was telling us that he wanted to play "hide the salami" with the new client who had the missing husband.

"You're done," announced Errol with cheeseburger on his breath. The prints would be sent to Albany and registered.

I wiped my hands on paper towels, which just smeared the black ink over a wider range of skin. Smudges like bruises covered both forearms. "Here," yelled Rodriguez as the sponge he tossed hit me in the face. "I wet it for you!"

Errol guffawed and Rodriguez grinned. "What a dirty mind! I just spit on it."

Get tough, I told myself. I threw the sponge back and left for the ladies' room.

I looked at myself in the mirror over the sink as I scrubbed my hands with gray suds. It was official. I'd been hired as a private detective.

Later that first day, I was told it was because Vinny liked me and because Nick, his partner, was out with the flu and couldn't object. I laughed when I heard this, and Vinny chortled, "Bodda-bing, bodda-boom!" and did a series of bumps and grinds in his brown double-breasted suit. He was built like a fireplug; his shaved head gleamed under the fluorescent lights of the windowless office.

I had just sat down at my desk, was still drying my hands, hadn't even opened my new notebook, when Vinny bounded over to me. "Hey, got this guy arriving from Milwaukee into LaGuardia at ten-thirty, checking into a hotel on Park Avenue. His wife wants pikchuhs of the broad he's screwing. Get 'em gettin' outta the cab. Get over there, get the photos, get back."

"Okay." I nodded and pulled on my jacket. Photos. Hotel. Adultery. Like in the movies.

"A swanky hotel means a doorman. Watch yourself," said Vinny. He looked at his watch and then at me. "Here's the address. Get outta here. Hurry."

"Okay," I said as I grabbed the paper and then the camera Errol held out like the baton at a relay race. How will I do this? I shrieked silently. If there's a doorman, I can't stand on the sidewalk and just wait for the taxi to pull up. Park Avenue. Maybe I'll have to lie on my stomach in the daffodils on the island in front of the hotel.

"Guy's six foot four. Got bright red hair. Can't miss him," shouted Vinny from the doorway as I started down the hall.

I turned around to wave at him, to let him know I'd heard. Errol and Rodriguez had both popped their heads out the door. Three heads in a vertical row, like cartoon characters, all watching me. Vinny's shiny bald head was on the bottom since he was shortest. The send-off. The kiss-off. Maybe my new career would be over before lunch. Later I'd hear that they took bets on whether I'd come back.

I jammed the camera into my pocketbook as the elevator doors opened. Rats flashed through my mind as I descended. I'd heard there were rats on those Park Avenue islands. There had to be another way to get the pictures. "I can do this," I said aloud as I stepped into the lobby. Out on the sidewalk in the sun I started toward Third Avenue, reminded myself to stand up straight, and whispered, "I've been fingerprinted and I'm a private detective and I can do this."

Circumstantial Evidence

The idea to be a detective had occurred to me about a month before, on a snowy February afternoon, as I thumbed through the Manhattan phone book. Some people turn to the Bible for inspiration, but for me it's the Yellow Pages. I'd never met a detective, but suddenly I wanted to be one. It seemed obvious that all I had ever accomplished or endured had led to this.

I was divorced and broke and camping out in a borrowed apartment with an open suitcase under a dining room table. I look back and wonder why this wasn't cause for despair, but at the time, I saw it as just part of the ride, another chapter, the ending of something or the beginning of something else. I was back in New York after a long time in Europe via a stint in Beverly Hills. After college I traveled all over the world, living in cheap hotels or ones with five stars, cottages, consulates, cabins, flats, penthouses, houseboats, villas, chalets, châteaux, or palaces, depending upon my ever changing circumstances. I'd been a cat sitter, a mail getter, a plant tender, someone who drove a boy to his piano lessons from Switzerland to France on Thursdays, a houseguest, a writer in residence, a lover, a fiancée. Just nothing on paper—no leases, no licenses. Married to a Canadian for a few minutes, which was quite long enough.

My best address for about a decade was a post office box on Lexington Avenue. I'd call Avi the Israeli and tell him that I'd be in Cyprus for the next three months or in Sicily for the spring if things worked out, and he'd laugh and write down a new place for the forwarding.

Rome had been home base the longest. I'd worked for Vatican Radio and been on the air at least twelve times a week with the international news, interviews, my documentaries. On Sunday evening, I was the weekend news anchor for a local TV station. I'd go tearing up the Spanish Steps at six and race through Piazza Barberini, worried about the sweat stains under the arms of my silk blouse, which cost (to the lira) exactly as much to clean as I was paid. I'd write my copy, powder my nose, flirt with the tecnicos, and then perch on a stack of Italian telephone books in front of the one camera. I had published two novels, with three more gathering dust on a high shelf in my mother's garage. One novel I'd written in a bikini on my terrace in Rome overlooking Castel Sant'Angelo across the Tiber, another in an elegant hotel room gazing out from my balcony at Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc.

A decent journalist can organize facts, decide what's relevant, and move ahead, so becoming a detective made sense. But once I was one, it tapped something in me that I thought I'd lost. I liked finding the feeling again. Kid stuff, tomboy talents. Long-ago games on summer evenings with lightning bugs.

All the stories overlap other stories. Circles of past and present and memory. When it's going well and it's very physical, I feel about nine. A little girl wearing sneakers, having adventures in the woods, far away from the house, harboring the wish that no one would ever call her home for dinner.

I look back to that first spring of my new life and realize that I knew nearly nothing about being a detective. Yet on some level, I was prepared to embrace everything it entailed.

The chance of an income also figured in this wave of desire—oh! what naïveté!—for I was slowly and fashionably starving to death in Murray Hill right on Madison Avenue. A friend of a friend, Robert the Englishman, had gone to Eastern Europe and left me his apartment for a small rent, which loomed larger every time I thought of it. He was supposedly becoming a millionaire selling tractors to Romanians while I fought with a novel that was going nowhere.

When I first had the idea to become a detective, I suddenly remembered Caro and called her up. I'd met her in Haiti years before, and we'd always liked each other. Once, for a month in 1974, Caro worked for a detective agency and found a missing person that not even the FBI could find. Caro was euphoric, but family obligations interfered and she hasn't been a sleuth since.

She shares an enormous loft with her sculpture and a man her husband calls Silent Pete. I'd go to foreign movies and drink champagne at Café des Artistes with her husband, John. They were quite sophisticated about it.

Caro had a broken leg in Brooklyn Heights, so at noon the next day I was tromping through the snow under a giant bridge, bearing turkey sandwiches. When I arrived, she limped across the room and told me she lived for the day when it would be necessary to change wigs in a phone booth. We sat down in front of the bookcase holding twenty years' worth of magazine articles and books on private eyes; her list of the best was topped by Bo Dietl. I borrowed his autobiography called One Tough Cop, went home, and read it.

The following morning, I called Bo Dietl's office and he agreed to meet me at the Doral Inn at 49th and Lexington at five-thirty. I was told to "ask the bartender for Dietl." Then I hung up and leapt around in a state of high spirits, wondering what to wear. I changed my blouse three times during Donahue and yanked off one pair of earrings after another. I opted for subdued good taste and wondered if he'd show up undercover. Then I wondered if you could do that.

A detective in the flesh, my first. I grinned triumphantly in the bathroom mirror. Columbo has that ratty raincoat. Matlock is southern small-town seersucker. I took off my earrings and replaced them with gold hoops. Don't want to overpower him, I decided. I felt like a teenager with first-date jitters. I thought of interviewing a cardinal in Rome. Royalty of another realm. Bo Dietl! I kept wanting to say Bo Diddley, and this worried me.

At ten past five, I reskimmed the last ten pages of One Tough Cop, standing up to remain unwrinkled; then, after deciding perfume might be unprofessional for this profession, I sprinted out the door toward Lexington. Caro had made me promise to call her afterward "even if Nancy Kerrigan is skating. Even if you're in bed with him."

The bar was as black as a nightclub. I obediently asked, "Where is Bo Dietl?" and the bartender answered me with a little head tilt. Bo was over by the window in a dapper double-breasted suit and cowboy boots; his silk tie looked expensive and just barely in good taste. Without the police cap he'd worn in the jacket photo, I could see his bald spot. We shook hands, but he didn't look happy to see me. He didn't make eye contact and immediately turned away to introduce me to his "attorney." Stubby had just arrived from Miami aglow with sunburn in his nearly white double-breasted suit. The pouf of handkerchief in his pocket was the color of strawberry ice cream. He had perfect, Chiclet-capped teeth and a tie that made me imagine flowers from a jungle on Coney Island, even though I've never been to Coney Island. Stubby was easy to talk to, which was lucky for me since Bo was constantly greeted by other men who were invited to sit down and have a drink. "One tough cop" blatantly ignored me, so I talked to "the attorney." Bo drank Diet Coke and ordered one for me; I had pictured him throwing back jiggers of Scotch and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

The suits were stunning. I felt like a drab female bird as the males flaunted their plumage. I'd never been with men who would wear such suits. I guess I've been a Brooks Brothers baby my whole life, if you leave out Rome and London and Geneva. Now I sat across from a banquette lined with men from Brooklyn and the Bronx and Queens. Foreign boroughs. A convention of bodyguards. It was dark outside, and the Waldorf=Astoria glowed behind them across the street.

I noticed texture, pinstripes, lapels of proud notched triangles. Door-frame-brushing shoulders. Silk ties with big knots printed in colors I associated with Pucci. Cuff links glittered on French cuffs. I saw diamond rings and remembered someone from my childhood warning me to stay away from any man who would wear one. I drank in the sartorial splendor of another kingdom. I think I may have entered Guys and Dolls territory. And I knew I wanted to stay.

There was Stubby and Teddy and Lennie and Bobby. Little-boy diminutives for massive men wearing boots made from reptiles I'd never dreamed crawled on this earth. I would later guess that these men had all worked with Bo Dietl during his NYPD days. They stuck together, year after year. They had the same backgrounds, often the same neighborhood in common, the same habits, and the same perspective on life. They'd seen combat together, gotten drunk together, been in each other's weddings.

Suddenly Bo Dietl slumped forward on the banquette with his head between his knees and pointed back for Stubby to read his collar label. "Do you like it, do you like it?"

Stubby squinted at the label with pursed lips. "It's pretty good. I like it."

Bo straightened up and tilted his head toward Stubby. "This guy monitors my wardrobe."

Conversation swung toward Teddy, who had just returned from Indiana trying to get a check from a man who owned a billion-dollar communications empire. "So this guy drives me out ta da woods ta this giant effing warehouse and says he's got da check inside. I start ta get outta da car. 'No, you can't come in,' he says ta me. 'Because you'll spread bacteria among the machines.' "

We sophisticated New Yorkers sitting in the darkness of the Doral Inn decide he's worried about a virus in the computers and laugh. Teddy doesn't get it and continues, "I tell him I took a shower this morning. I don't have any bacteria!" He is deeply offended. "But he tells me ta wait and he goes in and locks da door after him. I stand in da snow until I think about a back door and I run as fast as I can around da warehouse and sure enough da door pops open and I call his name and he says, 'Oh, Teddy! Hi! Come on over here!' He leaves da door open and I rush over when he goes ta get da check and I see da inside of the effing warehouse. Two phones on da floor! That's it!"

Stubby's face went red under his tan. His mouth opened and closed with no sound coming out. He looked like a fish drowning in air. Mopping his face with the pink handkerchief, he searches for words. "I gave that guy sixty-five thousand bucks last summer! Whaddya mean there were just two phones on the floor?"

"I'm tellin' ya. Looked just like a bookmaker's."

Raised voices. Another round. More Diet Cokes arrive. The men are ranting about lost money, about cheats. "Whaddya expect?" bellows Lennie. "Whaddya expect?"

In later months, I would be privy to countless conversations like this one.

Meanwhile, Bo Dietl was not even looking at me. He is a man's man. His shirt was so white, it looked blue white; I think I have never seen French cuffs so deep. A gold cuff link twinkled as he put down the Diet Coke. All the men fell silent. Bo appeared small beside his linebacker "attorney," but Bo was definitely the top dog. They all sat shoulder to shoulder and stared at me. At last Bo spoke. "So ya wanna be a private dick."

I hope I didn't gasp. All I could think of was public penis.

I managed to nod. Silence. I took a deep breath and said that I'd done lots of different things, but the pattern was that I loved interviewing and research. I thought about working for the Madison Avenue art gallery and the charming, womanizing French owner who'd ended up in handcuffs, arrested for possession of stolen paintings. No, don't talk about that. Maybe Bo arrested him. Citibank. No. National Audubon Society. That was temporary. I was a bad typist and would give letters to my boss with tiny holes from my erasures. It appeared that moths had gotten to his thoughts. Time Inc. had lasted four days; I'd hated it. Air France. Club Med. The travel agency. The advertising firm in the PanAm Building. Me as dessert chef. Me as interior decorator. No. No. No. I took a deep breath and talked about doing research for CBC television. The documentary on organized crime. I said that I'd coauthored a documentary on contemporary celibacy in the Catholic Church and that for a year I had interviewed nuns and priests about their sex lives. None of the men blinked. I wondered if they were still breathing. I soldiered on.

Then he told me that he only hired people with law enforcement experience or from other detective agencies and that he couldn't hire me. I would not surrender. I suppose in hindsight I should have waved a cocktail napkin like a little white flag and run from the room through the hotel lobby and out the revolving door to lose myself in the evening crowds.

But no, that's not my style. I blundered on. "Why can't I be a detective?" I insisted. "I can learn." Silence from the men. There was the whirr of a blender from the bar behind me. Something being crushed, pulverized. "What about finding a missing person, since I hear that's a lot of work on the phone? I could start there."

Finally Bo said, "Maybe I could pair you with an experienced person."

"Super," I breathed.

Then he said, "Would you do surveillance?"

"Oh, yes, of course." What a lovely word. So French. "Would it be a hotel lobby?" I ventured.

"I don't know."

"Would it be out on the street watching a doorway?" I hid my nervousness at the thought of being sent to Harlem in midwinter to stand in the snow under a streetlight and pretend I belonged.

"I don't know."

"Doesn't matter," I said. "I'll do it." Pause. "If you tell me how, I'll do it. If you would just give me a few tips." Silence. "I could start out in the office, if you wanted me to."

"Yes, you'd learn a lot listening to the jargon."

I agreed enthusiastically. Jargon? That's the problem—I simply don't know the jargon.

Bo Dietl was poker-faced and hard-eyed before me in that very expensive suit. I felt writhingly stupid. Like a Girl Scout offering a cookie to a man who's just announced he's a cannibal.

Suddenly he repeated, "Maybe surveillance." My heart soared. That lovely word again. Oh, the romance of it! He continued, "Because I noticed when you came in there was not a ruffle of interest. No one gave you a second glance."

Death, I thought. But I smiled gamely. "Oh, so you mean I shouldn't rush out and buy a blond wig?"

"No." Bo played with the swizzle stick. "Some girls, uh, women… want to work for me and they walk in the room and they are these baudacious blond broads and everyone stops and stares…"

"Oh," I say brightly. "Then the trick is to have mud brown eyes and brown hair like me and to be a chameleon." I'm five foot nine, with shoulder-length hair, usually weigh 133 pounds, and always feel… never gorgeous, but adequate.

"You know the city?" Bo is looking down into his Diet Coke as if the mysterious dark liquid contains the answer.

"Manhattan very well, but Queens or Brooklyn? I'll get a map and figure them out." I'd lived on the Upper East Side before marriage and then on the West Side for a year afterward, which was before decamping for Rome. I knew "the city" to Bo Dietl meant a lot more than a few square blocks between the two rivers north of Grand Central Station and south of Harlem. I made a mental note to be able to say, the next time, that I knew the city.

Why wasn't I getting through to him? I told him more about my work on the Canadian television documentary on organized crime. I told him that I used to sit in bars in Toronto for hours with a hidden camera in a bag and that I'd plant myself next to Squeaker Franco, whose favorite thing in life was to drag people behind cars when they were late in paying the loan shark. Bo listened, then tilted his head in a gesture of dismissal. Stubby stood up. Teddy, Bobby, Lennie, all of them, scuffed to their feet in their pointy-toed boots. The audience with the Imperial Investigator had ended. He told me to call him on Wednesday and "remind me."

I ground my teeth. Bo Dietl told me to have a nice weekend, and we shook hands. He might as well have said, "I hear you're moving to the Yukon for sixty-three years."

THE NEXT DAY, I felt like a bag of dirty laundry. I realized it was the first time in my life I'd had an interview and not been offered the job. A part of me was on fire. Caro said not to give up; I said, "Are you kidding? This is just the beginning. I will be a detective."

I wrote a thank-you note on Monday and called Bo Dietl on Wednesday. He was polite, but I'm not an idiot.

So it was time to attack Caro's and my second choice. Irwin Blye's book explained everything you have to know about surveillance. No bright colors, please. Forget the red convertible. I decided not to drink anything for days in advance of a stakeout. I would be superlative at surveillance until I was carried away, bravely half-dead from dehydration and only barely strong enough to report to the client. Preferable to peeing in wide-necked plastic bottles. Irwin Blye, Private Eye. A knight in shining armor in a parked car.

Mr. Blye refused to even see me. Two down, but approximately 6,098 New York detectives to go. At this rate, I could be ignored and/or deselected twice a day for the next ten years.


On Sale
Sep 23, 2009
Page Count
368 pages
Center Street

Cici McNair

About the Author

Cici McNair, P.I., was born and raised in Mississippi. A graduate of Briarcliff College in New York, she worked as a researcher for CBC-TV’s award winning documentary on organized crime called Connections in Toronto. She was also a news writer, on-air newscaster, and producer of documentaries for Vatican radio in Rome. She has set up households in Canada, England, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and Cyprus and has traveled all over the world.

Ms. McNair now lives in Philadelphia and heads her own private investigation firm, Green Star Investigations, which handles cases ranging from counterfeit pharmaceuticals to missing persons, stolen art recovery, and murder. She also works as a court-appointed Homicide Investigator handling both capital and non-capital cases.

Learn more about this author