Britain's Divorce Craze: Hire a Detective

Pete Holman is a private investigator from the north of England with an accent to match. The 33-year-old is an ex-commando from the Royal Marines. He is short and stocky, and his arms are covered in blue-ink tattoos.

It was approaching 1 p.m. when Holman and I got into his black BMW SUV. With minimum use of the brake, Holman drove to a middle class neighborhood near Gatwick Airport, on the outskirts of London. There was a stakeout to be done.

This was a new case for Holman. The man who'd hired him was convinced that his wife was carrying on an affair during her lunch hour.

It costs about $90 for an hour of Holman's services, cheap by U.K. standards, where a rate of $400 an hour is not uncommon. Demand for private eyes is going up, Holman said, especially in divorce cases.

Back on the job, Holman pulled into a parking lot across the street from his client's home. We had a direct view of the front door. Holman took out a digital camera with a long lens and placed it on his dashboard.

I asked Holman what his instinct was about the case and the husband's suspicions about his wife. "She's been naughty," he said, without pausing to think.

Holman and his partner, Damien Ozenbrook, opened up Scarab Security Management in January. Previously, Holman had worked as a body guard and in surveillance. Since he started his company, he's had 25 cases. Ninety-five percent of them have been matrimonial issues, a booming business in Britain, he said.

Holman is not the only private investigator reaping the benefits of the spousal suspicion boom, although not all PI's play strictly by the rules. Recently, the divorce proceedings of Tamara Mellon, the founder and CEO of the British handbag company Jimmy Choo, and her husband, American Matthew Mellon II, the banking heir, took a nasty turn. Tamara Mellon charged her husband hired a private investigator to hack into her computer and otherwise violate her privacy, as well as the law. Matthew Mellon is now facing a criminal investigation to go along with his divorce.

And last year, Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator in Los Angeles, was indicted on charges of wiretapping and conspiracy. Pellicano's client list is full of Hollywood heavyweights, from Kirk Kerkorian, former owner of MGM, to film producer Steven Bing, who allegedly used Pellicano in an attempt to dig up dirt on Elizabeth Hurley after she claimed Bing was the father of her child. Pellicano remains in jail awaiting trial.

When there's a lot of it, money is often the primary reason to bring in a private investigator. As the London divorce attorney Vanessa Lloyd Platt put it, "If the wife knows that she'll get 50 percent of everything, she'll want to know: What is everything?" Platt estimates that private investigators are used in 10 percent of British divorce cases where the fight is a financial one. In the United States, the numbers are similar, experts say.

Though valuable in some cases, there is a limit to how useful a private investigator's findings can be.

In the 1970s, American marriage laws changed. In most states, "no fault" divorce laws replaced more demanding legal requirements. No longer was it necessary to prove adultery or cruelty. Now, all that was needed was the surgical diagnosis that the relationship was "irreparably ruptured beyond repair." Sure enough, 30 years later, adultery is rarely a factor in the division of assets, or even the issue of child custody.

"People still want to blame the other one, even though it may have no effect in court," said Jack Palladino, a private investigator in San Francisco. "They still want to say, 'You bastard!'"

For matrimonial cases, the majority of Palladino's clients are women. More often than not, they are sitting in his office because it has become impossible to deny the changes in their husbands' routines and moods.

"They are bewildered," Palladino said. "It is as though a new person has emerged in their spouse. The behaviour is a puzzle to them and really hurtful."

Palladino, by now, has a good sense of these men. Typically in their late 50s or early 60s, they are suddenly aware that they're getting old and their power is fading.

"I try to make people understand that this behavior reflects despair, desperation and fear, rather than a leaping towards happiness," Palladino said.

Pete Holman also takes his client's psychological needs into account. So often the bearer of bad news, he always tries for a gentle delivery.

"You speak nice and quietly and approachable-like," he said. "I'd say, yes, she came out of the house and she did kiss the guy. Then, if he wants to know, I'll tell him how long the kiss was, but I'll keep it nice and calm and factual."

Despite the unpleasant task of relaying such information — and the ethical implications of intruding into people's private lives — Holman said he has no reservations about what he does. "If someone's cheating on you, you have the right to know," he said.

In his quest for the answers, Holman often uses a range of disguise strategies. "We wear a hard hat, a high-vis waistcoat, carry a clipboard," he said. "If someone says, 'What are you doing?' we give them a bit of crap: 'We're here to fix the pipes.'"

Holman said he is vigilant about carrying out his work lawfully, but, as the Mellon divorce and the Pellicano case demonstrate, private investigators can cross over the line of legality.

Sometimes, the line is hard to locate. Installing recording devices in someone's house is illegal, unless someone who lives in the house has commissioned the job. Who's to say that those recording devices are not there for the purpose of recording oneself? And if, in the process, they happen to capture one's wife and one's wife's lover, the law gets fuzzy.

Back in the empty parking lot, Holman and I continued to wait. The hour wore on and the possibility grew that someone, somewhere was cheating on her husband. A cloud of suspicion seemed to descend on everyone on the street in front of us. Who was that woman in the purple sweatshirt and why was she idling on the curb? Who was that guy on the bike? That dog walker? That cabbie?

I asked Holman if being in the surveillance business ever makes him paranoid.

"Sometimes you've just got to step away from something and say, 'This is what it is,'" he told me. "People are just people. There's nothing untoward going on here."

The woman in purple was probably just waiting for the bus, he pointed out.

At 2 o'clock exactly, Holman pulled out of his parking space, ready to deliver the conclusive report for the day: He hadn't seen anything at all.