Once, Clarissa McNair had to convince a Diamond District dealer that she was a shop owner eager to buy his designer knockoffs.
Another time, she played the widow of a Tiffany-glass collector to see whether the well-known dealer, who had served time for selling stolen goods, had turned over a new leaf.
And then there was the time she pretended to be the mother of a child dying of cancer.
She had to memorize medications and complicated medical terms so the oncologist, who was suspected of selling a bogus “cure” for outrageous sums to desperate parents, wouldn’t catch on to her impersonation.
“I got so caught up in the story that I found myself crying,” she says.
The unplanned tears, she confesses, “were a good touch.”
Clarissa, who goes by Cici, is a not an actress.
She’s a private investigator; she’s worked on everything from sexual harassment, stolen art and corporate malfeasance to missing persons, death-row and blackmail cases.
She’s worn a wire and costumes. She’s gone undercover long term.
Slipping into the skins of others is all part of the job.
“I love doing it,” she says. “It’s a holiday from being me.”
Just who Cici is is hard to pin down. Although she was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, she didn’t waste time leaving the state.
After graduating from Briarcliff College in Westchester with a degree in American history, she got married and spent five years in Canada.
“The divorce took longer than the marriage,” she says. “I went to Rome and threw my wedding ring in the Tiber.”
By that time, Cici had done, by her own account, “a whole lot of jobs,” including working on a true-crime documentary and training to be a dessert chef.
“I felt out of step with the people I had been close to,” she says. “I decided to start over and moved to Italy.”
Vatican Radio hired her as a news writer, on-air newscaster and documentary producer.
“I was the only non-Catholic there,” she says.
She left to write a nonfiction book, and when that didn’t work out, she produced her first novel, Garden of Tigers.
She moved around a lot, setting up house in Rome, then London then Geneva and several other places, before returning to the states.
After a year of working on films in Los Angeles and writing her second novel, A Flash of Diamonds, in 1994 she landed in New York, broke and living out of a suitcase in a borrowed apartment.
She got the idea to be a detective while looking through the Manhattan Yellow Pages.
“I’d never met a detective, but suddenly I wanted to be one,” she says.
Cici landed her first job on April Fool’s Day, 1994. The irony was not lost upon her.
Cici, who is tall and willowy and likes to wear big, floppy sun hats, speaks with the seductive wisp of a Southern accent.
She’s had a lot of adventures while vanquishing the bad guys – you can read all about them in her 2009 memoir, Detectives Don’t Wear Seat Belts.
That book left her sleuthing solo in Miami then Philadelphia.
That’s not where her story ends. There was Paris. Then Rome.
There were more novels – Dancing With Thieves and Kiss the Risk – and a true-crime book, Never Flirt With a Femme Fatale.
And lots of investigations.
In the summer 2016, Cici set up what she calls the “international offices” of Sleuth Star and McNair Writes, her memoir-writing company, in her one-bedroom, marble-floored Astoria apartment above a Laundromat on Broadway.
“I don’t like 9-to-5 jobs,” she says, adding that she has clients around the world. “I like projects because I like to see the end of things.”
Such as the rape case she just finished gathering intelligence for.
“I’m hired in criminal cases to hear the client’s story, take photos at the crime scene and interview the people involved,” she says. “I think of my job as gathering background information for the lawyer so he’s not surprised in court.”
Each case, she says, is, in essence, a short story.
“The characters lie and cheat,” she says. “Sometimes there’s heartbreak. They have all the drama of novels.”
She capitalized upon their novelistic potential immediately.
“I started taking notes on my first detective job,” she says.
Cici, whose crime/scandal/death show, Basic Black, is broadcast on World Radio Paris, is writing a screenplay and developing a true-crime TV series about her life as a private investigator.
She’s also seeking a publisher for an international case she recently completed.
She can’t talk about it yet, but she guarantees you’ll hear about it all over the news.
Cici just got back from a month-long trip to Paris.
The year is young. She’s looking forward to new cases and adventures.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.
Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling