It is said by many people in Houston—assistant district attorneys, convicted felons, and even his office secretaries—that when Clyde Wilson issues an invitation, it is not just an invitation. “Lemme buy ya a cuppa coffee,” the lanky 69-year-old private investigator will say, or “Les go smoke a cigarette.” This offer, delivered in a voice as rich and as resonant as that of a country preacher, is not really an offer but a message, and the message is that Wilson has something you need to see. Usually it is a file containing what he considers to be the goods. What Wilson does next depends on what you do from that moment on. If you fess up after seeing the evidence, more than likely he’ll ease up. If, on the other hand, you refuse what could loosely be described as his kindness, God help you.
“I don’t like to see a guy who acts like the epitome of propriety when he’s dirty as hell,” Wilson snarls from behind an ever-present plume of cigarette smoke. Call it a pet peeve or a personal philosophy—either way, it has placed Clyde Wilson at the center of many of Houston’s grandest scandals for decades. When, in the sixties, the trustees of the University of Houston suspected their school was being corrupted by homosexuals and student radicals, they hired Clyde Wilson to snoop around. When, in the seventies, Ash Robinson wanted someone to investigate his errant son-in-law, John Hill—the case that culminated in Joan Robinson Hill’s high society murder, immortalized by Tommy Thompson in Blood and Money—he turned to Clyde Wilson. When, in the eighties, the board of Hermann Hospital believed some of its own members were abusing the hospital’s charitable trust, they went to Clyde Wilson for answers. So did Galveston’s Moody Foundation, when someone was stealing from within. When the State Bar wanted someone to go after flamboyant personal-injury lawyer John O’Quinn, Wilson was its hired gun; when sensational revelations demolished Sylvester Turner’s mayoral ambitions last fall, the man responsible was Clyde Wilson. For more than thirty years, Wilson has served as the city’s most public of private investigators.
Owing to his accomplishments and his aggressively unpretentious manner—he favors cowboy boots and jeans, curses extravagantly, and has a habit of removing his glass eye as an icebreaker—Wilson has been rewarded for his success with a place in an august class of Houston eccentrics. Like bewigged consumer watchdog Marvin Zindler, ditsy social doyenne Carolyn Farb, and irascible trial attorney Joe Jamail, Wilson has become a beloved figure. He is beloved because he is proof of Houston’s most powerful myth: You can be yourself and still get to the top.
But Wilson proves something else about Houston that belies another of its most cherished myths. This is, after all, a city that has always prided itself on its tolerance and its openness, from the breadth of its opportunities to the accessibility of its elite. If you believe in the myth of openness, you might also