Detecting the detective…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Susannah Stapleton is a historical researcher and life-long fan of Golden Age crime novels. It was while reading one of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley novels that she found herself wondering “Were there really lady detectives – proper fleshandblood ones – in the golden age of crime?” A little searching turned up the name of Maud West, who advertised herself as “London’s only Lady detective”. Intrigued, Stapleton turned her research abilities towards finding out more about this elusive woman, and along the way to learning about the world of private detection in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Maud’s story runs through the centre of the book, and we do gradually learn a good deal about her life. But Stapleton uses her as a jumping off point to look at all kinds of quirky aspects of society of her time, such as the growth in divorce cases, blackmail and extortion rackets, theft and kleptomania in high society, dodgy spiritualists, and the expanding role of women in the professional world – of detection, specifically, but also more generally. She uses actual cases to illustrate her subject matter and writes in an approachable, chatty style that makes the book easy and enjoyable to read. She’s also more than willing to allow her own opinions to come through, thus avoiding the dryness a more academic approach may have had, and she’s often humorous.
Maud was a mistress of self-advertisement, and wrote many articles for the newspapers and magazines of the day in which she related some of her racier adventures, with much gun-slinging, travel to exotic locations and evil blackguards whose dastardly deeds were thwarted by Maud and her team of crack detectives. Each chapter ends with either one of these tales or with an interview given by Maud to a journalist of the day. Stapleton can’t exactly disprove Maud’s stories, but nor could she prove most of them, and she’s clear that she suspects most of them are exaggerated at the very least, if not entirely invented. They add a lot to the fun though.
Stapleton digs down into old newspapers reports to find cases that Maud definitely worked on, and mostly these are to do with rather less glamorous crimes – divorces, thefts, missing persons, etc. That’s not to imply that her real work was dull – Maud was apparently a mistress of disguise, often dressing as a man in order to follow people or cases into places not easy for a “lady” to access. Her work involved her in some of the sensational society divorces of the time, and while the dope factories of South America may have been pure invention, she clearly did traipse around the spots of Europe where the rich Brits abroad got up to skulduggery, often of the amorous kind.
Maud the detective is easier to pin down than Maud the woman, though. Stapleton sifts through the many and varied stories Maud gives of her own origins in interviews over the years, and tries to get at the truth of who Maud was, where she came from, and how she ended up in “an unsuitable job for a woman”. This becomes a detective story in its own right, and the other interesting aspect of the book is that Stapleton takes us with her on her research journey rather than simply presenting us with the results. So we learn how she goes about looking up old records – censuses, birth and death records, newspaper reports and so on – and she tells us when something sets up a suspicion in her mind and how she then sets about proving or disproving it. Sometimes these leaps seem too fanciful, and often peter out, but even as they do they often reveal another piece of the jigsaw. As often happens with me when the subject of a biography is someone who didn’t necessarily want to put her private life in the public gaze, I found some of these details a little too personal, occasionally making me feel a shade uneasy. I was rather glad to discover that Stapleton herself had considered that aspect…
Doubt rippled through me. Had I got carried away? Were the dead fair game? And, if so, just how dead did they have to be to make it okay? Was Maud dead enough?
Without wishing to spoil the story, by the end, like Stapleton, I felt somewhat reassured about the acceptability of publishing the revelations she discovered along the way.
Stapleton also discovered that Maud’s claim to be London’s only Lady detective was entirely untrue. Not only were there other detective firms owned and run by women, but there were lots of women employed as store detectives, or working alongside the police in cases where women were able to gain easier access – in the fight against prostitution, for example, or secretly policing society events, or monitoring the more violent suffragette groups. Stapleton tells of how women gradually began to be officially employed by the police, usually as clerks but sometimes involved in detective work.
As the Leeds Mercury commented, however, ‘like all leagues to put women in the place which according to man they should occupy, the League of Womanhood has a man for its organiser.’ In this case, it was Captain Alfred Henderson-Livesey, a former officer in the Household Cavalry, who had devoted himself to reclaiming public life as an exclusively male sphere.
He’d even written a book on the subject. Sex and Public Life was, naturally, dedicated to his mother, and had a bright yellow binding to match the bile within. The main thrust of his argument was that professional women were not real women but genetically abnormal ‘sexual intermediates’ whose second-rate achievements were of interest purely because of their sex. As such, they must be stopped from corrupting the nation’s true womenfolk before the whole ‘virile race’ descended into debauched halfwittery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Maud’s story is interesting in itself, but even more fascinating are all the insights into the darker recesses of Golden Age society and particularly the rapidly changing role of women in these early years of the fight for equality. I liked Stapleton’s relaxed and often humorously judgemental and sarcastic style, and found her account of her own researches as entertaining as the information they uncovered. And for Golden Age fans, there’s a special treat in the chapter headings, mostly (perhaps all) taken from the titles of famous mystery novels and stories – Partners in Crime, A Kiss Before Dying, A Case of Identity, etc. – and the various hidden references to some of the greats Stapleton makes in her text. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador.