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Suspect your spouse is cheating? Embroiled in international intrigue? Meet Manchester’s private investigators
‘We will get that picture. No matter what’
By Jack Dulhanty
Simon Atkin’s office is very small. A single cubicle that contains an entire company: XThree Surveillance Ltd. Atkin, on the other hand, is not small. An ex-paratrooper, his wide neck is obscured only by a wider beard. When he sits at his desk, a gold statuette of Pegasus sits to his right. Bolted to the wall above his lie detection equipment, in red and black lettering, are the words: Lie to Me.
After leaving the army, Atkin worked as a security guard in Iraq, then as a surveillance subcontractor in the UK. Realising he couldn’t survive on subcontracting forever, he founded XThree in 2012 and has worked as a full-time investigator ever since. During that time, he has mostly worked for those weathering troubles of the heart. "My clientele is just Joe Bloggs matrimonial stuff: cheating housewives, cheating partners. That is 70-80% of my work,” he says.
He can monitor a subject for as long as six months at a time. Tracking their movements, noting who they meet and where, along with taking regular photographs throughout to update the client. He says his clients are a pretty even split of men and women, he films pretty much everything, and will stop at nothing for the money shot. If a man he’s tracking is sitting in the quiet corner of a pub with a mistress, about to kiss, “we will get that picture. No matter what”.
To many, the image that comes to mind when thinking of a private investigator is effectively that Chinatown noir stereotype: sharply dressed, fedora cocked forward, basically a silhouette that drinks martinis and smokes a lot.
Although Atkin ticks off some of these criteria — perennially straight-faced, could tell you about the highs and lows of his life in the cadence of someone reading a shopping list — the broader reality is different: "When I say I'm a private investigator, everyone jumps on like: 'oh it must be so exciting', you know, James Bond and all that,” says Atkin. “It's not. It's 80% waiting around, 20% actually doing the work."
This hews to the general impression I get from others. In fact, one investigator, who I agreed not to name, cited the same ratio: “I would say probably 80% of it is boring. And then you get 20% adrenaline.”
But that 20% makes for some interesting stories. Just last month, Atkin was working a job for a client in Stockport who suspected her husband of 15 years was cheating. “Again it was the same sort of issue: a sudden change in behaviour, a fresh new look, going to the gym, keeping their phone on them all the time, coming back late from work.”
After tracking the man’s car and seeing that he wasn’t going where he said he was going — totally missing his place of work, taking random long-haul trips to other parts of the country — Atkin followed him.
“He was at a McDonald’s, in Birmingham, with an entire family: a woman and three kids. And, it’s not usually that. It’s not usually a guy who has a whole separate family on the go. I mean, this guy had two lives.”
Lots of investigators find matrimonial work draining and try to avoid it. “I end up being an agony aunt,” one tells me. “The phone calls at silly times of the night saying: ‘oh I think he’s doing this or she’s out doing that.’” They say they feel like matrimonial work isn’t really what PIs are there to do and they would rather take what they believe to be more “serious” jobs.
"People look down on what I do in the industry. It's like the lower level of private investigation,” says Atkin. “But, it's kept me going for years." Other PIs focus on work like tracing, locating individuals using public records; bug-sweeping, where an operator locates hidden cameras or recording devices; or solving internal company disputes. Each local private investigator has their own niche. This is by design.
‘In Manchester, we’ve got it working really well’
A local PI’s biggest competitors are national companies like UKPI and Insight. These firms despatch investigators to areas around the country and are a one-stop shop for detective work, offering everything from lie detection to tracing, bug-sweeping to surveillance and so on.
A single local PI can’t afford or manage all of those services alone, so they each specialise in one and stick to it. Then, they advertise all the services on their websites and subcontract what they can’t do to someone who can. That way, all the work is shared, contained in a closed loop system designed to snub out the nationwide companies.
"It's a very tight, very small industry. Everyone knows each other, everyone uses each other. In Manchester, we've got it working really well,” says Atkin, whose niche is lie detection, so other local PIs will subcontract those jobs to him.
He spent £15,000 on software called EyeDetect. It tracks people’s involuntary eye movements to work out if they’re lying, instead of monitoring blood pressure levels and heart rate like a polygraph does. Experts are dubious, but Atkin tells me the test is legit.
“On paper it’s 90% accurate,” he says.
“Wow, how’s that measured?” I ask.
“What, as in how does it work?”
“Nah like, what’s the metric to decide that something is 90% accurate?”
“It’s… I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s all the scientific research that has gone into it. They put a 10% chance on it getting it wrong.”
It costs £350 a pop, and it’s where Atkin wants to focus his resources; moving away from on-the-ground surveillance and into mostly lie detection. He says he does around two or three tests a week. It can be the usual “did you have sexual intercourse with X” a la Jeremy Kyle, other times it might be to prove theft. One woman brought her stepdad in to take a test on whether he sexually abused her as a child. Harrowingly, Atkin says, he failed the test.
Given the fact that Manchester’s PIs have built such a delicate ecosystem, doesn’t Atkin worry that someone might decide they want to specialise in lie detection too, disrupting the balance? I might as well ask if he ever worries about the sun not rising: “It just wouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t step on my toes.”
Nor does he worry about the guys he subcontracts his surveillance jobs to following his route and starting their own companies: "It's no skin off my nose if he strikes out on his own and gets up with my company. Because we're all fighting against the big companies, the nationwide companies."
The nationwide companies know the local PIs operate like this, by the way. “I think a lot of people in this industry aren’t very honest about the way they work,” says Sarah, a PI for an agency called Bond Rees. “A lot of them that pose as companies are actually one-man bands.”
The national PIs argue that their wider coverage and expanded capability means they can follow an investigation to completion, no matter where it takes them. The local PIs say they’re the superior choice because they know the lay of the land in the areas where they operate, and aren’t just parachuted in. This has the same hallmarks of the argument that people should use independent businesses instead of chains: ‘Support your local, artisan private investigator today!’
But the system in place in Manchester — where jobs are shared within a single network — does breed a certain cliquiness. “You have to be a team player,” Atkin explains. “Those who try to be a lone-wolf can struggle.”
I hear on the grapevine that one investigator I was speaking to for this story has fallen out of favour in the industry; he wasn’t a team player. One day he was investigating a group of fox hunters — presumably on behalf of hunt saboteurs. The hunters caught him on film, in broad daylight, trying to place a tracker on one of their cars. The video ended up on YouTube. You don’t come back from that.
“He was like a rabbit in the headlights,” laughs Atkin. “His face never really fit in the industry,” and then, less generously: “he was shit.”
‘We are the people that people phone when they have a problem’
Just because local PIs are local doesn’t make them small fry. There are, in Atkin’s words, “big fish”. They take out contracts with wealthy individuals or big companies. Unsurprisingly, these are difficult people to get hold of and are naturally media shy.
I have been speaking to private investigators for the past six months. One night, my phone rang; no caller ID. I answer and it’s a PI who runs a pretty serious company based out of Manchester. When he first came here, he managed a Starbucks, then got into door work to pay off debts, then got into surveillance and then: “took the plunge, invested everything in the security industry”.
Now he works with very wealthy individuals that we aren’t allowed to talk about. How wealthy? It’s April when he calls, and one of his clients is being sanctioned for the war in Ukraine. So, oligarch-wealthy.
“We are the people that people phone when they have a problem,” he says, voice gravelly enough to close a Hollywood movie trailer. “I’m not an investigator, I manage risk,” he continues, “the end product is always data. I’m the director of a company that offers solutions.”
The vagaries and platitudes come thick and fast. Then I realise that’s kind of the idea. Every answer is a parry, a misdirection. He’s more eager to talk about the industry more broadly or about other PIs and their “horror stories”.
There are many: men who start investigation companies as a guise to do little more than stalk ex-partners, or con-men who pretend to be investigators, take money from desperate people and disappear. "I've taken jobs off people who have hired an investigator before and said they've been robbed,” says Atkin, “There's a lot of crooks and criminals who purport to be investigators."
Looking for a slightly less opaque interviewee than the Person People Phone When They Have a Problem, I try another who has been in the business 35 years and runs a spyware retailer that many of the local PIs go to — it sells GPS trackers and tie cameras (I haven’t looked at a tie the same way since seeing those). Asked if he’d be free to chat that week, he replies: “not available”.
Taking that as “not available that week” I follow up and receive a reply reading: “The below is a response from a good friend of mine who politely asked me not to get involved with any media platform whatsoever.”
The response from the good friend says the “left wing media'' has destroyed freedom of speech and PIs must avoid journalists at all costs. Choosing not to follow our “agenda” will make them a “racist, homephobic. Zenophobic. Islamaphobic Nazi,” according to the good friend — whose existence I can’t help but question.
“All Private investigators are middle aged white men who either served in the military or Police,” the good friend continues. “I'm sure you will write that up as ‘All Private investigators are Racist.’ Media spin what they want and never tell the truth.”
‘Obviously, we haven't got the best reputation’
Conspiracy theories aside, PIs are instinctively anti-institutional.
In the UK, a PI doesn’t need to take any kind of course, have any licence, or operate under any kind of body to do their work. Anyone can do it. This has contributed to a stigma that PIs are untrustworthy. "We try and put stuff in place to reassure the client,” says Atkin, “because, obviously, we haven't got the best reputation."
But while there are horror stories that justify regulation, so too are there stories that show the role PIs can play in times of stretched police departments. One I spoke to, who I will call Phil, told me about one case where he helped a woman find the address of a man she accused of abusing her as a child.
“She had been to the police previously, but they had said: ‘we don't know where they are,’ or ‘we don't have enough information,’ they don’t have the time to follow through and conduct investigations like they used to.” So Phil found the address, then handed it on to the woman who could then pass it to the police. “So, the public are in fact conducting their own investigations.”
Or, at least, they were. Phil’s company has since gone bust. When you think “cost-of-living crisis” it’d be odd if your next thought was: “what about the private investigators!” But hiring a PI to track your adulterous partner or check your house for secret recording devices is kind of a luxury. Atkin and the others are feeling the pinch.
“Things have been slow,” he told me over the phone recently. One job was to see if a woman taking time off work with an injured hand had actually injured her hand. He had a few guys staking out her house to see if they could spot her, well, using the supposedly injured hand. “We sent a few fake parcels over, but there was no answer.”
That said, his lie detection business is booming. Although there has been a minor change in clientele of late. People who want to quiz an employee on “lost stock”, but aren’t overly keen on disclosing what that stock is, who took it, or why two of the three employees they have brought in appear to have been beaten.
It seems fairly obvious they’re drug gangs who have had their production houses — farms, labs etc — robbed by rivals, and want to see if one of their employees is acting as an inside man. Doesn’t Atkin have a moral quandary about that? “They’ve come here for an answer. I’m providing a service.” And, what about when they fail a test, what happens to them then? “They walk out of this office.”
In Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, a private investigator is hired to look into a matrimonial affair. “Do you think there’s a waiting room, so that we see each other’s faces as we pass through?” asks a civil servant named Henry, dreading the thought of being seen at the investigator’s office and exposed as a jealous husband.
I saw one of Atkin’s clients in the waiting room of his office recently. A nurse still in uniform who looked very stressed. She kept passing in and out of reception and, since the office building was officially closed, I had to keep letting her back in by pressing a button. She seemed flustered, I suppose for the same reasons alluded to in Greene’s novel.
She disappeared into the warren of cubicle offices, one of which Atkin rents. “Sorry, with a client,” he texts me. I wait about 40 minutes before realising I’m not going to see him. As I leave the building I wonder: what is she there for? What’s Atkin doing for her? “I just want people to have the truth,” Atkin told me once when I asked him why he does this job. “I think people deserve that.”