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Hotel Detectives

Los Angeles gave us the trench coat—at least in the iconic film noir sense—but even there the garment has disappeared as a hotel-security accessory. So have many of the all-too-visible surveillance cameras, at least at Raffles L'Hermitage in Beverly Hills. "We feel that by having cameras you're saying to everybody else, 'We have a problem here,'" says Jack Naderkhani, the general manager. At L'Hermitage, Naderkhani doesn't charge his security people to enforce the law so much as just keep an eye out. "You are here to absorb and report," he tells them. "We'll follow up." Hotels are marked like neighborhood turf and enjoy their own rules: We'll handle it.

Naderkhani started in the business 27 years ago at a hotel in Arlington, Texas, where the security consisted of "checking the parking lot in the morning to see how many hubcaps were stolen the night before." Nowadays, at least at first-rank hotels, he says, the crimes are as up to date as the technology: "It's more about credit-card fraud and identity theft."

For the European perspective, I call Michel Rey, managing director of the Hotel Baur au Lac, in Zurich. Monsieur Rey gets the idea immediately.

"I'm the hotel detective!" he cries.

(Le gumshoe, c'est moi.)

Rey is full of stories. The time he deployed professional divers to find a ring that had been flung into the river Schanzengraben during an argument between a couple celebrating their anniversary. The gigolo who slipped a 20-carat rock off the finger of an aging beauty during their stroll in the Baur au Lac garden, swallowed it, and had to have his stomach pumped. ("The owner of the ring forgave her lover, because she felt that such dexterity as he had displayed was rare enough to be honored!") His suspicion of certain guests—based on their "filthy suits" and some off-looking 100-franc notes they were trying to change—that led to the capture of a counterfeiters' ring.

Then Rey relates his favorite escapade.

"One day two very attractive, rather extravagantly dressed ladies caught my attention," he remembers. "According to the night security officer, they had been seen walking around the corridors. It was obvious. They must be prostitutes looking for customers, and I had to get rid of them. But how and on what grounds?The only way was to catch them in flagrante."

Rey deemed the matter "too delicate to delegate," told his wife not to wait up, and trawled his own hotel late that night until he bumped into the women.

"One asked whether I would like to spend the rest of the evening with them," he continues. "I found myself in their room negotiating the rate and being asked whether I preferred a twosome or a threesome." He decided it was time to disclose his identity, and then made them promise to stay in their room and leave quietly in the morning. "The matter was resolved to everyone's satisfaction," Rey says, "although I must say it was not easy making my wife believe the story."

Rey's anecdotes, with their whiff of old-fashioned hotel shenanigans, only serve to increase my nostalgia for those long-gone days. So does this bittersweet observation from I Was a House Detective:

"The problems have changed some since I started in the business, but the guests have changed less than anything else," Dev Collans wrote, back in the fifties. "Hotels have become more efficient, more convenient, more comfortable....Air-conditioning, television in every room, the clock in the radio.

"But with all the complicated apparatus of modern hotel efficiency, the Front Office hasn't yet found a way to replace the House Officer with electric eyes. I don't expect they will."

In a sense, he wasn't entirely wrong. Sure, it's true that the next time you spot a fasullo or a larrikin getting the bum's rush, it's more likely thanks to a hotel surveillance camera than a world-weary bruiser in a trench coat. But you still need that human touch. Somebody, after all, has to take the lobby lice firmly by their collars, growl "All right, youse," and show them where the sidewalk begins.

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