The hotel detective has become a security specialist, and surveillance screens now do the work of that seen-it-all squint. But at least one thing remains the same: there's always a diamond ring missing

François Dischinger

As noir archetypes go, he's as recognizable as the fall guy or the femme fatale. Less tragic than the former. Certainly not as glamorous as the latter. In fact, he's the antithesis of glamour: a hard-bitten ex-cop, perhaps, installed in a flophouse lobby behind a racing form and a stogie. Unlike the private eye, he's not a romantic figure; he's paid by the hour and probably on the take.

Maybe he has a little drinking problem.

He...turns up. He always has, at least as far back as July 30, 1917, when two New York hotel detectives caught then-senator Warren G. Harding in bed with an underage girl (a $20 bribe made things right, and Harding famously observed, "I thought I wouldn't get out of that for under a thousand!"). He turns up, and we—unlike skippers and gozzlers and future presidents—are glad to see him. Because he's a real character: of the law, but a little beyond it, respected by no one, his hands full trying to maintain order in the hermetic, chaotic microcosm of the world that is the hotel.

There he is blowing his stack when W. C. Fields tries to seduce his wife in The Golf Specialist. That's him again, "a lugubrious man who's seen it all several times over," onstage in Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, saying things like, "Come on, you" and "Hey! Hey! Hey!" In The Maltese Falcon, he's busy talking to a woman—sorry, a dame—when Humphrey Bogart goads him into ejecting Elisha Cook Jr. from the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere: "I wanna show you something. What do you let these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby for, with their heaters bulging in their clothes?"

He turns up in literature, often. In his recent mystery The Hotel Detective, Alan Russell writes, "The hotel dick...brought to mind a smarmy sort, someone as likely to be looking through a keyhole as protecting a guest from someone doing the same."

He turns up, or his antagonists do, in the papers. During a scuffle stemming from a waiters' strike at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1934, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and Dorothy Parker "gibed at the [hotel] detectives with a running fire of extemporaneous bon mots and 'wisecracks,'" the New York Times reported. (Tough job, being heckled by those three.) Celebrities of another sort have always known that few things define an image in such quick, broad strokes as checking into a hotel—preferably one with a suitable built-in atmosphere, like the Chateau Marmont—and becoming involved in an unfortunate, high-decibel misunderstanding involving the wholesale destruction of property. Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio grasped this, brilliantly, at an early age. So did Keith Moon and the members of Led Zeppelin. Courtney Love...well, Courtney Love. As a myth-enhancing career move, you could do worse than go up against a hotel and its stolid, licensed representatives, especially if you're an actor or a rock musician.

So, naturally, he—or she—also turns up in popular song. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants says the band's "(She Was a) Hotel Detective" was inspired by a single line ("The hotel detective/He was outta sight") in Grand Funk Railroad's 1973 chart-topper "We're an American Band," in which "four young chiquitas in Omaha" meet the Grand Funk "dudes" and, it being Saturday night, "proceed to tear that hotel down." Today, of course, a discreet hotel security team would have been onto those dudes and chiquitas before any structural damage could occur.

How much has the job description really changed?It has always been a matter of protecting the property and protecting the guests. "When you come into this hotel, you're entrusting us with the keys to your home," one hotel security chief told me. "You have a right to feel safe." Guests do have the right to feel safe. But they don't have the right to drive cars into swimming pools, defenestrate television sets, or splinter end tables, so maybe it's an open question who's got the keys to whose home.

Either way, both the seedy house dick of another era and today's high-tech equivalent are charged with controlling the barely controllable, keeping everyone safe and happy and out of the papers.

My interest in hotel detectives began years ago with the purchase of an out-of-print 1954 memoir called I Was a House Detective, by Dev Collans, with Stewart Sterling. The pseudonymous Collans was a real retired house dick, the sort who, we learn, "makes collars" and is alert to "loungers, loafers, and larrikins...the 'lobby lice.' " The pseudonymous Sterling (actually Prentice Winchell)was the author of a series of mysteries involving a hotel detective at the swank "Plaza Royale" in New York. From the table of contents (sample chapters: "Corridor Creeps," "None of That Here," "The Lady Is a Stooge") to the index of hotelese that closes the volume ("Frisco. To case a guest's room and luggage...Hot-pillow House. Cheap hotel which rents a room several times a night...Riding Academy. Hotel not too particular about respectability...Under a Flag. Using a phony name"), I Was a House Detective is an amusing slink through Sweet Smell of Success-era Manhattan.

It's rewarding for the language alone. The book is populated by "belligerent buckos," "convention cuties," and redheads with "brunette chums." Collans serves up anecdotes ("It was the Hungarian Suicide Song....Bob whispered again: 'That's the one the Budapest police won't let 'em play any more....That dame must be getting set to do a high dive!' "), dispenses hard-boiled wisdom ("That decided me. Any out-of-towner who holes up in a metropolitan hotel for a solid week and doesn't use the phone is a suspicious character on my form sheet"), even insight into the period's law-enforcement pecking order. Most house officers, he says, have a low opinion of recruits from small detective agencies, preferring "graduates" of larger bureaus, such as Pinkertons. As for ex-cops, many of them—back then—were too accustomed to "telling people where to head in and when to move on. This doesn't fit in with the attitude required by hotel managements, which demand a little more suavity and savoir faire than a precinct plainclothesman is apt to acquire on his round of official duties."

I Was a House Detective's present-day counterpart isn't quite as much fun. Steve Peacock worked at the Helmsley Palace from 1987 till 1992 as a plainclothes house security officer, and last year published Hotel Dick: Harlots, Starlets, Thieves & Sleaze. The book is undercooked and overheated (chapter headings include "He'd Kill Me If He Found Out" and "Get This Hoe Outta Here"), but it's not without redeeming moments. After describing a wedding-reception brawl, Peacock relates how, in contrast, guests "were on their best behavior" at the celebration for the John Gotti Jrs.: "Somebody from the Gotti crew had advised the hotel security chief to just keep the house dicks away," he reports. "No need to tell us twice about that request. The event ran without a hitch."

"Badly written," booms John Segreti, the seriously built managing director of the New York (formerly Helmsley) Palace, grinning as he crushes several small bones in my right hand. Segreti is referring to the Peacock book, which I'd mentioned as we were being introduced at the Palace's café.

Released finally from his grip, I join the hotel's security chief, John Tarangelo, at a table.

"He used to play for the Steelers," says Tarangelo, examining his menu, while I check to see whether I can still move any of my fingers.

We order cappuccinos. Tarangelo, an affable, fiftyish Brooklyn native, spent 29 years in the NYPD, the last five in the intelligence division doing "dignitary protection and threat assessment." When he was recruited by the Palace four years ago (since 1992 the Madison Avenue landmark has been under new management) he was "kind of skeptical—I didn't wanna come here and worry about somebody stealing towels," he says. "But I found it was a whole different world. It's a city. You have eight hundred-something employees, you have nine hundred rooms, you have a diverse group of people coming in and out of this place all the time: just about every contingent that you have on a city street." Tarangelo's security staff numbers two dozen, and includes six ex-cops.

Since he joined, he says, there have been just two deaths at the hotel: "Two weeks ago we had a guy commit suicide. Drug counselor, overdosed. Yeah—I know." Tarangelo sips his coffee. "He had half of Peru up his nose when we found him."

On this winter day, the hotel's most urgent problem is ice that has been melting and falling from the roof. An ambulance was out front as I arrived; a pedestrian had been injured. The matter was being dealt with swiftly, sidewalks roped off, photos taken, reports prepared. We tour the hotel, and Tarangelo shows me the command center, with its monitors and computers and cameras that perform "face capture" on whoever comes into the Palace, can track anyone on the premises, and record the turning of every key in every lock.

"Security officers nowadays, they're trained," he says. "I send my people for locksmith courses. I hold anti-terrorism classes with all the employees: what they should be looking for, what they should be aware of."

The special classes, the CPR training, the emergency kits in the guest rooms, the backup generators, the impressive camera system—all of it was in place or in the works before September 11, although the attacks "kind of sped up our game plan." In the aftermath, he says, "We added a more visible presence. There's gotta be not only a perception but a reality that you're safe here. This is a public building. It's amazing what can go on in a public building."

Much of what goes on involves "misplaced property." For instance, the wife of a well-known athlete had recently reported a diamond ring missing.

"So we handle it just the way we handle a crime in the police department," Tarangelo says. "We do a key read, we interview all the maids, anybody that went into the room; P.S. long story short, everybody denies knowing where the ring is. And that's just about the end of it—you can't put people on the polygraph if they don't want to be. The woman calls us up today: 'Gee, I'm really sorry, I found the ring at home.'

"We get a lot of things like that. It's not the old, you know, the guy that's gonna chase hookers out of the bar. Do we get hookers?I'm lying to you if I say no. We get 'em, they're high-class call girls, and if we can keep 'em out we keep 'em out. But a lot of times, discretion is the better part of valor."

The Palace is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, whose president and CEO, Paul M. McManus, got his start in the 1960's as a sales manager at the Waldorf-Astoria. He still remembers with amazement someone liberating a grand piano from one of its ballrooms.

"Our head of security—the house dick—he was a character," McManus says in his Park Avenue office. "Of Irish heritage. An ex-New York City policeman, and he almost could have gone either way—could have been a crook or a cop; he was kind of on the fence. He knew all the hookers on Lexington Avenue by name: 'Come on, Dolly.' He knew the old Forty-second Street, the old bars, Jack Dempsey's, and all of that."

McManus traces the current incarnation of the hotel detective to the sixties, when high-profile government officials—whether they happened to be visiting dignitaries or the president of the United States—started traveling with more sophisticated advance teams. "They were intense-looking young men with earpieces, and clearly they were of a much higher professional level," he says. "And the house dick almost became redundant in that scenario." These days, McManus adds, "It's an enormous strategic job. It's not just a matter of watching out for pickpockets or hookers."

Some hotels are now built with dozens of elevators, so VIP's (and VIP wannabes) who wish to avoid public spaces altogether can shoot from their chauffeured SUV's directly up to the mini-bar—no forced marches across the lobby like mere mortals, no pesky human contact, no...well, no romance of travel, or not much. Room keys, too, have increasingly futuristic functions: kept on one's person rather than plunked down at reception, they—that is to say, you—can be tracked throughout the hotel, your movements no secret, your name visible to any staff member within view of a computer screen, the better to greet you by name.

Brave new world, and scary, too. So it's somehow reassuringly retro of McManus to stop me on my way out—"Oh, one more thing"—and frisk me.

Hotel executive humor.

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.