Hal talks with investigator and author Tyler Maroney about his new book, The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping the World.
A former journalist who reported for Fortune and other national publications, Tyler Maroney turned his reporting skills to private investigation fifteen years ago. He joined Kroll in 2005 and later started his own firm, QRI, where he specializes in civil litigation and white-collar defense cases.
The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping the World, released earlier this fall, is Maroney’s deep dive into the high-stakes world of global corporate investigations. Readers get to ride along on far-flung cases in the French Alps, Dubai, and Mombasa and learn how all kinds of investigators ply their trade. In part, Maroney’s goal was to dispel the “misperception that private eyes are amoral rule flouters who deploy dark arts — hacking, impersonating, bribing.”
To that end, he has produced a thorough insider’s guide to the indispensable but often little-known role private detectives play in ensuring the transparency of international business, government institutions, and legal systems. He defines what real-life private investigators can and cannot do and who they serve (from celebrities to nonprofits and even “sovereign nations”). Each chapter profiles a case and its investigators, offering a fascinating porthole view into the inner workings of the world, from international risk management to bankruptcy trustees’ asset clawbacks. We get to know fascinating figures like Julian Fisher, a lanky former MI6 operative who now runs a firm that helps corporate clients navigate the nuances of politics and power in East Africa.
“What is information?” Fisher asks Maroney over pints at a London pub. “Who owns it? Who decides what its value is?” This book is, in part, Maroney’s way of addressing the question, and how investigators answer it shapes their philosophy of what this calling is all about. Because information itself is neutral; it’s what you do with it — and what cause it serves — that counts.
“Why does anyone hire an investigator?” asks Maroney in the prologue. His answer:
“To uncover wrongdoing. To right a real or perceived wrong. To punish or to exact revenge. To gain an advantage over a competitor. To satisfy a curiosity. To find a missing person or recover a stolen object. To feed paranoia. To benefit the public interest. In other words, to help satisfy basic human impulses.”
As he points out, some human impulses aren’t so savory, and private investigators don’t set the agenda — the client does. Which is why the most ethical investigators still face moral quandaries about whose interests are being served in any given case.
But ultimately, Maroney’s book is a letter of recommendation for the adopted profession he’s come to love, and it offers a little something for everyone: veteran investigators will enjoy the case studies and tradecraft details, and spy-curious outsiders will love how Maroney manages to shatter the myths without destroying the fun. The colleagues he profiles may not be shadowy, corrupt gumshoes from the pages of Raymond Chandler, but they are absolutely international men and women of mystery, prying apart society’s dark fissures and extracting valuable secrets — and often, along the way, helping to drive the invisible machinery of the world. All in a day’s work.
(note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and tl:drness. To avoid the psychic pain of FOMO, you should listen to the whole thing.)
A Refugee from Journalism
HAL HUMPHREYS: So you come from a journalism background.
TYLER MARONEY: That’s right. I spent ten years as a journalist, and the last year or so of my career was focused pretty exclusively on investigative journalism, which is actually how I got into the private investigative world. I had been kind of floundering as a journalist, in the sense that I was a generalist, so I never really knew what I was writing about.
Having discovered investigative journalism, that really gave me a sense of purpose — I knew that every day I’d have to look for and uncover hidden information. And that was wonderful training for the private investigations world, which I actually fell into quite by accident, having met somebody who was at Kroll in 2005. Took a chance on the industry and haven’t looked back.
HUMPHREYS: I love it. How did you find working at Kroll? Did you enjoy that work?
MARONEY: It was a real transition for me because journalism had been an identity, not just a job. People used to joke that I dressed like a journalist, whatever that meant. So I wore it with pride. But I quickly discovered that leaving the media was easier than I thought because every day I was thrown into a completely new investigation. And one of the things I enjoyed most about it was that as a journalist, you’re always kind of throwing rocks at the building from the outside looking for a story. Whereas as a private detective, as you all know very well, you’re brought into that building by the owners. And that was thrilling to me to be trusted in cases, where you were given access to everything the client has and then asked to make sense of it.
Also, I learned that my training as a journalist, whether it be tracking down obscure documents that others don’t know where they live, or having the confidence to pick up the phone and call 100 people in a week was was just wonderful training.
HUMPHREYS: That’s one of the things I think a lot of people that think they want to be private investigators don’t understand: the hours upon hours spent in basements of random courthouses in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a piece of paper or just on the damn phone making 50, 60 calls. This morning, I was on the phone from 7:30 until 8:30 and made 50 calls, just trying to verify small bits of information .
MARONEY: And what you’re hinting at is something I agree wholeheartedly with, which is that just persistence alone is half the game, and refusing to take no for an answer. My business partner Luke Bryndle-Khym is wonderful at this. He will, for instance, call court clerks and be told that a document is not public, and he will pull out the statute from the state that he’d already researched and explain to them that it is not only public but that they should turn it over to immediately. And they do! And just knowing the law and knowing your rights as a private detective is incredibly valuable in our field.
HUMPHREYS: No doubt. So you come out of journalism. Your first introduction into the private investigator world is at one of the largest companies in the country, Kroll. You’re in there with ex-FBI, ex-CIA. How did it feel working with those people? Did they look at you like, you’re just a lowly journalist? Or they say, wait a minute, I wish I had those skills?
MARONEY: It was a mix. I was in the the the mothership of Kroll in New York and Jules Kroll, who founded the company in 1972, and some of his kids who worked for him were still there. So I had the benefit of being able to work with people who’ve been in this industry for years.
Many of the most senior and experienced people were former prosecutors. And I did not come out of law enforcement, so I had a certain insecurity in that sense, because my resume did not scream private detective. But I quickly learned that my talents as an investigative journalist were very much respected. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to see how refugees from different industries could collaborate on an investigation.
Profiles: Our Man in Mombasa
HUMPHREYS: I like that. You know, the book kind of reads like a series of really good magazine profiles of cases or investigators. One of the most interesting ones to Kim and me was the Julian Fisher story. Can you tell us a little bit more about Julian?
MARONEY: Sure. That’s one of my favorite chapters too. Julian has a very specific focus in his work — East Africa. He had been a member of the intelligence services in the UK for many years and developed relationships with people, contacts, sources over the years. And when he moved into the private sector — in other words, no longer working for Her Majesty, but working for hedge funds and real estate investment companies and British law firms and the like — he was able to use that experience. And as I say about Julian, he’s a foyer to a foreign land, that door through which people walk when they want to understand how the business community works in Mombasa. He’s not sitting in London running database searches. He’s actually going to these places and meeting with his contacts.
This is a chapter about what, you could argue, is a relatively simple due diligence case. His client is a real estate investor who has invested in East Africa, where there had been a number of terrorist attacks. And the investor wants to know if those attacks were targeted at him. What Julian learned is that the bombings were not personal at all. In fact, they were part of a larger political campaign to disrupt local elections. Surprisingly, that gave the client comfort — that he was not being victimized by a competitor or targeted by a political adversary.
You could argue that Julian’s job in this case was political risk consulting. He was teaching his client how the world works in a faraway land.
HUMPHREYS: And in the financial world and due diligence, there are the KYC requirements — Know Your Customer requirements. Julian would be the go-to guy to meet those requirements for larger financial institutions.
MARONEY: That’s exactly right. You and I throw around terms like “KYC” and “compliance,” and those don’t sound particularly interesting. But behind the headlines, there’s fascinating stories, and one of my goals in the Julian Fisher chapter was to show that. This chapter is about this tension-filled meeting he has with a with an army chief and how he got the army chief to disclose some very confidential information to him. To show that even though the work we do is sometimes categorized as “compliance work,” on the ground, it’s fascinating international men and women of mystery.
Find the Dogs, Find the Man
HUMPHREYS: Yes, absolutely! And the stories in your book, these are kind of top-tier investigators. And the overwhelming majority of private investigators, in this country at least, are sole proprietors or very small shops. We don’t have a badge. We don’t have authority. We have charm and good lucks, and we’re batting 500 at best. So that process of gathering information and charming people into talking to you is I think helpful for private investigators to understand how that works. Which I think leads us into the British guys who went looking for [Michael] Mastro, over in France.
MARONEY: This is another wonderful story. So when you read about the story in the news, originally it was — even by the admission of some of the bankruptcy lawyers I spoke to — boring. A bunch of investors who invested in a real estate empire in the Pacific Northwest, and they kind of force their investing partner into bankruptcy because he had not been responsible about paying his bills. The whole thing started playing out in bankruptcy court, which is the least sexy corner of the legal community.
But what happened was that the bankruptcy trustee was brought in to find the missing money. Bankruptcy trustees are kind of asset recovery specialists. And he brought in law firms, which brought it in private detectives, to help find this money to help make the creditors whole. So that’s the newspaper headline. But behind the scenes, what these private detectives did was they followed this guy, Michael Mastro, and his wife, who had fled the United States, flew to Portugal, and then drove to the Swiss Alps to this little town called Annecy.
MARONEY: They were not only fleeing their creditors, but they were fleeing the FBI. So there was a criminal investigation of them as well. That gave it an interesting flavor to me as a writer because you have a bankruptcy trustee and lawyers and private detectives and the FBI and even local law enforcement in France all looking for this guy. But the private detectives were not interested in his criminal behavior. They just wanted to know where the money was.
One of my favorite sound bites from the chapter: They knew that Mastro and his wife had these two little dogs. So they they came up with a strategy, not to search for corporate records or run database searches, but to find the local veterinarians. And one of the detective says, “Find the dogs and you find the man.” And it works. A vet was able to identify Mastro and his wife by simply looking at a photograph of them. And I think that illustrates perfectly how this work, even if the case seems a little bit boring and not sexy, the work itself can be really entertaining.
HUMPHREYS: You can turn pretty much any task into entertaining and fun and meaningful work.
“I was fortunate enough to persuade some clients and private detectives to talk to me on the record, all towards the greater good of revealing the fascinating work that we do that often is not reported.”
MARONEY: That was part of the purpose of writing the book. As we all know, the work that we do is often discreet, kind of buried in legal filings or done on behalf of lawyers working on confidential projects, but I was fortunate enough to persuade some clients and private detectives to talk to me on the record, all towards the greater good of revealing the fascinating work that we do that often is not reported.
HUMPHREYS: And you see the granular workings of things, like how trustees hunt for assets. What crazy things did you learn?
MARONEY: I’m glad you mentioned that. Because it picks up on the central theme of the book, which is that we as private detectives are brought in and given access to a world that is it is not often discussed in detail, especially in the media. And my personal journey is realizing how kind of ignorant I was about the way that the business world works and capital flows and lawyers operate. As private detectives were given a whole new level of access that cannot be taught in class or from reading the newspaper. That was one of my goals, to bring the reader behind the scenes and into the closed-door rooms and into the field for these exciting adventures that can teach us how the business world and the legal world operate.
HUMPHREYS: Let’s talk about databases, how they actually work and how you use them.
MARONEY: They’re such a crucial tool for private detectives, especially in the United States. The chapters in my book that take place overseas are largely about sourcing queries and meeting with people, because there just isn’t that level of access in other countries. You can argue we don’t have much respect for privacy here. And if that’s true, then it really benefits our field because we have access to court filings and property records and trademark applications and lien filings — it’s endless. But it’s wonderful to have access to certain databases that are granted to us because we have the licenses and we have a purpose to use them. In other words, because we’re working for lawyers or as part of a background check for a financial institution, for instance, where there are issues around the Fair Credit Reporting Act, meaning that there are rules that you have to follow when collecting information on someone’s background.
“If people think that we have magic superpowers, let’s allow them to continue thinking that.”
What I find most fascinating about databases is the ability to essentially become a computer programmer, the ability to create search strings that take into account not just somebody’s name, but where they’ve lived, companies they’ve worked for, relatives’ names. To be able to use Boolean search strings and other creative searches within databases like Westlaw or Lexis or Bloomberg Law or any of these massive databases that aggregate public records, is an incredibly valuable tool. Because if you’re limiting yourself to putting first name, last name into databases, you’re not going to get very far, especially if you’re searching a common name.
HUMPHREYS: I’ve looked for Bill Stevens all over the world. There’s so many of him.
MARONEY: Exactly. And the other thing about database searching is it’s just a first step because these databases include secondary and tertiary sources. So use them as just a first step into getting the primary source. Because once you’ve got that, whether it’s the complaint in a lawsuit or a bankruptcy petition or a Uniform Commercial Code financing statement, then you can really start mining those documents for the middle initial, for the footnote, for the signature — for all of the clues within those documents that will help you craft a case.
HUMPHREYS: One thing I tell everybody is the databases are great. Have more than one that you have access to, and that’s a starting point. That tells you where to go. A lot of people think that we have this magic superpower — it’s not quite that. But it is pretty damn impressive what we can do with a couple of databases.
MARONEY: If people think that we have magic superpowers, let’s allow them to continue thinking that.
Myths and Ethics
HUMPHREYS: Speaking of magic superpowers and misconceptions, a lot of people think that private investigators are “amoral rule flouters who deploy dark arts.” At the end of the day, most of the stuff we do is pretty forthright. We’re not sneaking around so much. We’re just kind of digging quietly.
MARONEY: That’s exactly right. I don’t want to make it seem like our firm is Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But I do want to make the point that we are ethical. The overwhelming majority of people — the former police detectives, journalists, accountants, lawyers, researchers — anyone who comes into this business is doing hard, ethical, painstaking work. And I just fear that the general public thinks that we are not only able to break the law to crack the case, but willing to break the law to crack the case. And in my experience, that’s just not true.
I recognize this comes from two angles. One is the mythological private eye from fiction, from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But also from the media’s coverage of us. I have a Google alert for the phrase “private detective” and “private investigator,” and many of the the the articles that I read are describing how some private detective has bribed a friend on the police force for a rap sheet or tapped a phone. And my point is the vast majority of us are not engaging in that kind of activity, because if you do, you’re going to get caught. And not only does that hurt you, but it hurts your client, and it hurts the reputation of the industry.
HUMPHREYS: And furthermore, if you get the information in a way that is not legal and it becomes fruit of the forbidden tree, then everything that stems from that find is useless.
MARONEY: Exactly. And one good example of that is when private detectives are working for litigators, if you find evidence through some shady means, it almost by definition does not become admissible. And if you’re working a criminal defense case and you find exonerating information or even information that would force prosecutors back on their heels, but you can’t use it, it doesn’t have any value at all.
HUMPHREYS: Absolutely. Everybody loves the image of the private investigator who knocks heads and uses a credit card to sneak into the office and grab files. But speaking of ethics and philosophy of the business: Brian Willingham, a good friend of Pursuit Magazine and super good investigator up in New York, you guys, almost everybody I’ve met in the business, there’s a network of us that will call around and ask questions about ethical issues, “Can I do this?” And having that network of people to call is pretty helpful.
MARONEY: I agree. And by the way, quick shout out to Brian, I agree, he’s a fantastic investigator and has been an ambassador for us on this very topic for years. But I would say it’s actually not that hard to know where the line is. If you have to ask yourself if something is possibly illegal, you should probably avoid it. If private detectives think that the only way to get information is using some tactic that is morally questionable, then it’s probably not worth doing.
One of the things that I love about my job is that because we don’t have the tools of the intelligence services or law enforcement, it almost by definition forces us to be more creative.
“One of the things that I love about my job is that because we don’t have the tools of the intelligence services or law enforcement, it almost by definition forces us to be more creative.”
MARONEY: So where one private detective might think that the best way to get information about how a company works internally is to hack into emails, another one might simply just call the former CFO who quit two weeks ago and ask her. And that would be even more valuable because you might not only get the right information, but a witness who’s willing to testify.
HUMPHREYS: And you get color commentary, along with it, which is really helpful.
MARONEY: And it’s more fun.
Witness Interviews: What Not to Do
HUMPHREYS: Open-source intelligence. We hear a lot about that these days. I’m amazed at what people think OSINT is: this secret way to find things. But it’s information that’s available to anybody.
MARONEY: Yeah. A few years ago we were hired by a television production team to reinvestigate the Serial podcast case for a film that became “The Case Against Adnan Syed.” The first shoot that we did, we were calling a bunch of witnesses with cameras around us. After the cameras shut down, the director and one of the producers came over and said, “Wow. That was incredible.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, you just introduced yourself using your name, and you told them you’re a private detective.” And it didn’t even occur to them that that would be the approach we would take with a witness.
HUMPHREYS: Yeah. I was working on a case in Texas, and there was a federal probation officer who had just become a private investigator. We were talking about getting some information from someone who worked in a hair salon, and he said, “I can like, go in there and act like I’m a customer and then bring up some topics.” And the lawyer and I both said, “No, no, no, no, that’s not how this works.”
MARONEY: Right. One more quick anecdote: We were investigating another wrongful conviction, going to talk to people in the community who knew the person who was actually innocent, but was serving time in jail. Many of these people had had run into law enforcement, so they were intimidated by police officers. And as I walked up to the witness’s house, the PI who was with me pulled out his badge and was about to show it. I physically pushed his hand down, like to put it away, to make the point that not only is that likely not legal, but it would also intimidate the witness. Because the witness would think that we were cops.
And we were investigating police misconduct, so we wanted to be as far away from that posture as possible. And I just bring up that story as one about how to go about interviews with people while taking into account the sympathies and the motives of the people who you need to deputize to be on your side.
HUMPHREYS: I like that: “Deputize to be on your side.” That’s good. I’m stealing that.
MARONEY: It’s yours.
HUMPHREYS: Yeah. If you’re going to interview a witness, they need to feel really comfortable. It’s really about charming people, you know, mirroring their body language. But then, literally, seeing them as a human being and finding some place of empathy with them and and feeling the things they’re feeling so that they can open up to you more.
What the Job Actually Is
MARONEY: I think there’s also a misperception that we are trying to catch bad guys and and solve crimes all the time, when that’s not the majority of our work. If you’re working in a civil proceeding or searching for assets that might be fraudulent, it may not necessarily be a crime. So the mindset of people who come out of law enforcement — this is not a disparagement — to crack the case that involves a criminal somewhere: put that mindset aside a little bit and figure out what information is needed for your client, even if that doesn’t mean that the end of the case involves somebody in handcuffs.
So let’s say someone’s been exonerated of a crime they did not commit. They will often sue the city because they’ve been imprisoned in a violation of their civil rights. The assumption is that what we’re trying to do is find out who really committed the crime, who the real killer is, when in fact that’s not at all useful to us. In this case it’s to prove that our client was treated badly by the powers that be. Look, if we discover who the actual killer was while we’re at it, that’s an added bonus, but that’s not a requirement of the job.
I bring that up because it’s knowing what information is most useful, particularly when you’re working for lawyers who have a hearing to attend or a filing to make or a witness to put on the stand, knowing what information is most useful to them is incredibly valuable in our field. And I often spend much more time interviewing my own clients about how we can help as opposed to telling them how I’m going to crack the case.
“Knowing what information is most useful…is incredibly valuable in our field. And I often spend much more time interviewing my own clients about how we can help as opposed to telling them how I’m going to crack the case.”
HUMPHREYS: The initial interview with the attorney is, “What do you need from me? What are you looking for?” It’s all about servicing our clients.
MARONEY: I couldn’t agree more. And just kind of embedding yourself into a case and making yourself a partner with your client — as opposed to feeling like you are just a vendor or consultant — is a kind of savvy marketing technique, I think, because you build trust with your client that way.
HUMPHREYS: No doubt. Tyler, I cannot thank you enough for being here today. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you.
MARONEY: I just want to thank you both for this. I admire what you’re doing. You’re one of the few outlets that actually spends all of its time and effort on these issues from every angle you can think of. Congratulations on that, and maybe we can find more ways to collaborate. I know there’s no conferences these days, but at some point we can all be in the same room and talk about this stuff. So I appreciate your support as well.
HUMPHREYS: I, like you, love talking about this business and what it is and what it is not. I’m excited about the book hitting the world and people having a chance to get it. Where can they find this book, Tyler?
MARONEY: You can buy it online almost anywhere books are sold from Amazon to Target to Walmart to Bookshop and even in many bookstores. And I thank you for your support around this book.
HUMPHREYS: Tyler, thanks so much!
About the guest:
Tyler Maroney co-founded the private investigations firm Quest Research & Investigations, and has worked at Kroll Associates and Mintz Group. A former investigative journalist, Maroney has reported for Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and produced films for Frontline. He is the author of The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World.