Narrative Non-Fiction 4*
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton and published by Picador, is subtitled ‘Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime‘. With a title like that I thought it sounded just the sort of book I would like – and I did.
It is so intriguing – was Maud West really who she said she was? Susannah Stapleton discovered that she really did exist and was indeed a private investigator with her own detective agency, based in London in the early part of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards. The book gives plenty of extracts from Maud West’s own accounts of her investigations under Golden Age crime fiction titles such as The Lady Vanishes, The Body in the Library, and They Do It With Mirrors, for example. But these accounts had me wondering just what was the truth and what was fiction. They are so incredible! Maud was truly an amazing person – a master of disguise, equally able to pass herself off as a man, or a fortune teller, or a parlour maid, and skilled with a revolver, able to face down blackmailers. There are photographs of Maud – at work in her office and in a number of disguises. And it was not just in Britain – she worked all over the place including New York, Cape Town, Brazil, and Jakarta.
But what makes the book so good, and what kept me glued to the pages are the details of how Susannah Stapleton went about her research, included within the main narrative of her book. I haven’t come across this before – usually an author lists the sources used at the end – and there is just such a list (a very long and comprehensive list) at the end of this book. I was more intrigued by Stapleton’s own methods of research into finding out about Maud than I was by Maud herself.
I also loved all the details of the changing society in which Maud lived – the role of women in the struggle for equality, details of the living and working conditions and of the crimes that real life private detectives investigated – divorces, missing persons, adultery and theft.
It more than lived up to my expectations, but I am still wondering did she really do what she said she did? Whatever the truth she was a complex woman and a very private one at that.
Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.