For more than thirty years, Maud West ran a detective agency in London, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905.
A tireless self-publicist, Maud’s exploits grabbed headlines around the world – a woman, solving crimes, how could they not? But, in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.
Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the golden age of crime?
In this enthralling true story, Stapleton interweaves tales from Maud’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, forensically examining the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.
With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.
Combining the charm of a classic mystery novel with the diligent research and careful analysis of a biography, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is a rich and compelling story about secrets and lies in the golden age of crime.
A lover of golden age mystery novels herself, Susannah Stapleton is curled up on a winter’s night reading about Glady’s Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley when a thought strikes her – were there any real lady detectives in the golden age of crime? The resulting internet search brings up a Miss Maud West “London’s only Lady detective”, and starts Stapelton off on a journey filled with more red herrings and secret histories than even Agatha Christie might find plausible!
Without giving away too many of the details of Maud’s life, the unravelling of which is part of the joy of reading Stapleton’s painstakingly researched book, Maud West was a fascinating personality. Shamelessly self-publicising (it quickly becomes apparent that she is not, in fact, London’s sole Lady Detective at all), Maud sells her tales of derring-do to readers across the world, inventing numerous backstories and delighting thrill-seekers with her stories of foiled robberies, attempted kidnappings and dangerous continental drug gangs. But, as Stapleton digs deeper, ever questioning the truth behind Maud’s own account of herself, another story begins to emerge. Possibly less glamourous – and without a sinister blackmailer in sight – but no less compelling and, if anything, even more fantastical.
Interspersing her chapters with some of Maud’s delightful accounts of her endeavours, Stapelton has written an immensely readable blend of biography, social history and real-life mystery. I was fascinated to learn about the roles that private detectives played in the early part of the twentieth century, and encouraged by the initiative that so many early female pioneers took to advance their careers, such as the creation of the all-female ‘Efficiency Club’ to provide networking and advancement opportunities.
The book is also a compelling account of the difficulties of biographical research, especially when the subject is a little more ordinary than the royals or the political influencers that usually get this sort of treatment – and when they don’t necessarily want the facts of their life to be discovered. Although not able to fill all of the gaps, Stapelton is nonetheless able to craft together the essence of Maud’s fascinating life, pulling together the various traces that this enthralling woman left behind.
Doggedly researched and deliciously entertaining, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, is a testament to the life of a forgotten pioneer who forged both an enduring personal life and a successful career in an era when women’s options were limited. Combining biography, mystery, and social history, this is one piece of literary sleuthing that golden age fans won’t want to miss this summer.
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton is published by Picador and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.