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The Adventure of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton
Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than 30 years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society's finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. 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? Interweaving tales from Maud West's own 'casebook' with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.
The idea for this book sounded intriguing, and the pictures, photos and inserted advertisements gave it more provenance. Although it began with an interesting premise of researching the history of lady detectives and Maud West in particular, it aspired to be a combination of biography, novel and social history.
The book included many short stories and adventures. Some of these were entertaining, almost ‘mini thrillers’ and, if made up by Maud West, were fascinating. Although these accounted for a large part of the book, the author appeared to lack empathy towards her main character who was very strong, engaging and resourceful. Heavily researched, there was however limited factual information, too much surmising, and with the author revising previous suppositions with new ‘evidence’, the timeline became confusing.
The biggest strength of this book is what is revealed about Edwardian society, in particular the role of women and lady detectives in disguise. It emphasised the vulnerability of women at that time and reminded us of how far women’s lives have changed in the last 100 years.
Recommendation: Prompted discussion.