By Alan Prendergast
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By Michael Roberts
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" I think they made my P.I. character very believable, and they made the sleuthing scenes more realistic," says Beth Groundwater, an author who splits her time between Colorado Springs and Breckenridge. Groundwater's breakthrough book, A Real Basket Case, is about the owner of a gift-basket business whose husband is arrested for the murder of her hot young masseuse. She thinks her husband is innocent, and she enlists the help of a P.I. friend to prove it. "It was in fleshing out that character that I went to Colleen and Shaun's workshop to learn what P.I.s can and can't do," she says.
As the calls for help kept rolling in, Collins and Kaufman started a blog called "Guns, Gams and Gumshoes" on which they wrote about cases they'd investigated, explained how private eyes operate and included tips for fiction authors.
The blog evolved into the book, and How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths From a Couple of Real Life Sleuths was released in July as an e-book, available on both Kindle and Nook. It's a classic how-to, written in a breezy tone with lots of anecdotes. There are chapters explaining what equipment private investigators use (digital cameras, recorders and binoculars, but rarely guns), whether P.I.s can tell white lies (sure) and what to wear on an undercover surveillance (something that blends in so you don't, in the words of fictional sleuth Philip Marlowe, stand out "like spats at an Iowa picnic.")
Having finished How to Write a Dick, Collins and Kaufman are already working on their next book, this time about how to do legal investigations for attorneys. The title? How to Be a Lawyer's Dick. And Collins just finished a detective novel based on Kaufman called The Zen Man. She is self-publishing the book, which comes out in October.
The jig was up. The day after their photo shoot with the louse, Collins called the wife's lawyer. We caught him, she said. In the act. At the couple's divorce trial, the guy argued that he'd been sitting back, way back, in his colleague's car to take a nap. Must have been having some sweet dreams. The judge didn't buy it.
The wife, who had thus far seemed unbreakable, had only one painful question when she called Collins. "What did she look like?" she asked.
Collins told her the truth. "You're much better-looking."
One of their book's most popular chapters is about "trash hits," the art of stealing someone's trash once it's been abandoned on the curb and then rummaging through it for clues. It's legal, it's icky, and it can be quite scandalous, depending on what's inside. In short, it makes for great fiction, and even better reality.
On a recent Thursday morning, the couple leaves their bungalow at 4:30 a.m., dressed in dark clothing. "It's going to be one of those Starbucks kind of days," Kaufman says, steering the Corolla north under a sky that isn't yet blue.
Today's target is a man whose ex-wife suspects he is making more money than his child-support payments suggest. She's also interested in whether her ex, a repairman, is using hazardous chemicals at home — especially while he's spending time with the children. Her attorney has hired Collins and Kaufman, who charge $90 to $125 an hour, to find out.
Twenty minutes later, they creep into a neat middle-class neighborhood full of ranch houses and turn a corner. At the target's house, there's a Jeep in the driveway but no trash at the curb. "I'm going to guess that he's a lazy bachelor and he puts his trash out at like 6:30, 7 a.m.," Kaufman says. They cruise by once more, get the Jeep's license plate number for good measure and decide to try again around 7 a.m.
This time, they're luckier. "Oooh, we've got a live one here," Kaufman says as they drive by a blue plastic trash can at the end of the man's driveway. The sun is shining and the neighborhood is waking up. Collins makes a U-turn and stops the car. "Okay," Kaufman says. "Let's hit it." He gets out of the car and walks nonchalantly up the street, pushing up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. When he reaches the trash can, he beckons for Collins to come forward. She drives, quickly but not too quickly, toward him. He stretches his arms over his head, looks around, flips up the trash can lid, yanks open the car door and chucks a full black trash bag into the back seat. It smells. Bad.
"You were great!" Collins gushes as they drive away.
Kaufman smiles. "This is some rank shit," he says, motioning to the bag.
Down the road, they turn in to a dog park. Kaufman slings the bag over his shoulder like Santa, and the two head toward the park's molded plastic trash cans. Wearing latex gloves, they dig in. "Is she curious what the kids are eating?" Collins asks. "There's a lot of junk in here." She finds a Chips Ahoy cookie sleeve, dozens of now-melted freeze pops, two cold slices of pepperoni pizza and wrappers from Taco Bell.