Britain's Divorce Craze: Hire a Detective

"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.

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