Martine Baret sits behind the desk of her low-ceilinged office on Paris’s Rue du Louvre. Nothing about the appearance of this petite cardigan-sporting lady, who turns 71 this year, tells you anything about her profession – but perhaps that’s the point. Baret is the city’s most sought-after private investigator and runs Détectives Duluc, the oldest detective agency in Paris.
Founded in 1913 and bought by Baret’s father in the 1940s, Détectives Duluc has five sleuths on its books and, at any given time, will be working on about 15 cases. Although Baret is a second-generation gumshoe, sleuthing ain’t easy. Her business – just like any other – has had to adapt to a changing city. “In the 1960s and early 1970s about 80 per cent of cases involved investigating suspected adultery,” she says; today it is about 20 per cent. Are the French more monogamous? Probably not: it’s more that divorces have been granted without proof of adultery since 1976.
Fortunately there is more to the profession than tailing adulterous husbands or wives. With people living longer – and loneliness on the rise – much of Baret’s current work involves reconnecting clients with long-lost romances. “When people go into retirement they have more time to reflect on their lives,” she says. “Retirees will often come in asking us to find their childhood sweetheart.” This doesn’t always end happily: Baret once tracked down a client’s ex-girlfriend in the south of France only to find that she had died a few years earlier. Are these kinds of cases upsetting? “C’est la vie. You have good times and sad times,” says Baret, with the robust air of someone who has become used to delivering disappointing news.
Now that Facebook, Google and LinkedIn have made detectives of us all, our own tendency to snoop might have cut into the private-investigation industry – but Baret believes that clients still see the value of real fieldwork. Her claim is reinforced by the fact that the industry has grown in the past century. “When the agency was founded there were only about five of this kind in Paris,” she says. “Today there are more than 100.” Duluc offers surveillance for €75 per hour and crucially the reputation of the agency – and its heritage – means that the reports they write stand as valued evidence in court.
Baret has expanded Duluc’s capabilities to tracking down missing people – this accounts for about 100 cases per year – and investigating “questions of morality”, including financial swindles, unfair competition and industrial espionage. It isn’t all excitement and Raymond Chandler-esque mysteries though. Baret says that the more humdrum work takes the most energy. “You really have to love this line of work to be in it,” she says. “It takes up 110 per cent of your time. You can’t just switch off once you leave the office.”
As well as energy, Baret looks for a disciplined, sober disposition in her detectives; bourbon-swilling private investigators are the stuff of pulp fiction and film noir. In the real world, sleuthing isn’t a job you can do half-cut, or even with a hangover. “You can’t be the kind of person who stays up painting the town red,” she says. “To be a detective you always need to be in a good physical and mental state. Falling asleep midway through a surveillance mission and missing something is unforgivable.” But perhaps the most vital quality a would-be detective needs isn’t something that can be easily taught: the art of concealment. “If you’re a 6ft 4in [1.9-metre-tall] bald man, you’re much less likely to blend in to a crowd,” says Baret. Perhaps this is the key to her success: Baret is more Marple than Marlowe. Being French, though, she has better scarves.