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The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton
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Susannah Stapleton is a historian by trade who also happens to be a fan of golden age crime fiction, said James Walton in The Spectator. One day, while reading a 1930s novel about a female detective, the thought struck her: were there any actual female private eyes around at the time? A Google search led her to Maud West (pictured), who ran a sleuthing agency between 1905 and 1939, and billed herself as “London’s only lady detective”. Stapleton discovered that as well as being a private investigator, West was a “bona fide tabloid celebrity” who penned articles presenting herself as a “gun-toting mistress of disguise” pursuing “dastardly villains across the globe”. The press knew her as “Miss Sherlock Holmes”. The reality was more prosaic: West’s activities were largely confined to England, and while she did deploy a variety of disguises (many male), her regular work was catching petty thieves and adulterers. Stapleton’s biography is nonetheless “hugely entertaining” – all the more so for her “indefatigable” detective work in exposing her subject’s frequent “whoppers”.

With her magnifying glass and box of costumes, West was both a “splendid one-off and yet somehow entirely of her age”, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Literary Review. She could pose as a “monocled dandy, a bearded old buffer or a washerwoman” – and once even impersonated Charlie Chaplin. Interweaving tales of her adventures with “fascinating” details about the era in which she operated, this is a “jaunty, engaging and witty” read.

Despite West’s claim to be London’s only lady detective, the capital at that time was positively teeming with female sleuths, said Rosamund Urwin in The Sunday Times. Women aroused less suspicion than men, and could “go places where men could not”. Department stores employed them to spy on shoppers; they were installed as cooks in well-off houses; the police used them to infiltrate fortune-telling rings. While Stapleton’s own sleuthing is “impressive” (she discovers, for example, that West’s real name was Edith Maria Elliott and that she had a gonorrhoea-ridden husband and six children), she also goes into too much detail about these investigative efforts. Do we really need to know that, thanks to a tarpaulin covering, she cannot see the building where West’s office once stood on Google Street View? Stapleton does have a “slight tendency to pad”, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. Overall, however, this story of “Miss Marple on the trail of Miss Marple” is a “charming, lighthearted” confection.