Here’s a full transcript of the twentieth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: If you’re listening to this podcast, I feel like I can reasonably make the assumption that at some point in your life, you have read a detective novel. I’ll go further: you have probably read at least one whodunnit where the sleuth you followed so avidly was a woman, whether that was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple or Ariadne Oliver, Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, or perhaps a more modern creation set roughly when these queens of crime were working, like Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher.
But while you have enjoyed the fictional adventures of these sleuthing heroines, have you ever stopped to wonder who their real life counterparts were? Were there any actual lady detectives dashing about solving crimes when these authors were working, or was it all pure invention because society at the time would never have stood for the idea of a woman doing anything as grubby as catching a murderer or foiling a theft?
Well, wonder no longer. Today, we’re going to meet the lady detective.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This story starts, as all the best ones do, with a woman reading a Gladys Mitchell novel one evening.
Susannah: Well, it actually started with crime fiction — with Gladys Mitchell in fact. I’ve been a golden age crime fan since I was in my early teens. And I was reading Gladys Mitchell one evening and just thinking were there really lady detective in the Golden Age of crime, doing the job for real? And so I thought Oh Google will tell me I fancy. Right. So I fancy reading a book about this. And I just order one from the library or something and I couldn’t find anything.
Caroline: This is Susannah Stapleton, a freelance historical researcher and the author of a new book that I think you’re all going to want to buy by the time we get to the end of this episode. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What happened after that first failed google search?
Susannah: Then started looking a bit deeper and I came across just one one mention in the National Archives catalogue which was a description of a photograph of Maud West as London’s leading lady detective. And it all started from there
Caroline: Susannah ordered a copy of this photograph, intrigued by who this Maud West might be, and got her first glimpse of the woman she was about to spend an awful lot more time with.
Susannah: She’s very normal looking. So she’s the photograph when it eventually arrived. Just shows is a middle aged woman. She’s got a beautiful dress on with the most amazing pleating and everything. But she’s at her office in a very ordinary office. Pick the desk is piled with papers and she’s looking through a magnifying glass at a piece of paper which I say in the book it could be a laundry list. Who knows. You know it’s it’s a publicity photograph. But she’s got sort of brown permed hair. It’s you know a little jowly. It is. And she just looks like a normal person. So not the glamour. There’s no sort of red lipstick or anything like that. Not the sort of the the glam kind of lady detective a lot of people often think about but not quite. Miss Marple either.
Caroline: So Susannah now had an idea of what this supposed lady detective looked like, but she had no other information. Luckily, though, she’s rather a dab hand at solving mysteries herself, using the power of archival research and a lot of persistence. She tracked down a few other references to Maud online, and traced them all back to a single source.
Susannah: There were just a couple of mentions online once I started to look deeper and I looked all the all of them went back to just one book which is Elsie Lang’s Women of the 20th century which is something I use all the time and I didn’t remember there being a detective in it. It’s basically a book about it was written in 1929 I think. And it’s just about the amazing things women were doing at that time. And yes and it turns out she’s just again in another list. You know it’s sort of six words: ‘Miss Maud West is a detective’.
Caroline: After another tantalisingly brief mention, the next stop was newspapers.
Susannah: The first couple of things I found were one her adverts which were in the classified ads all the time and they were just it was just like something out of Agatha Christie — adverts for her services. And for that she actually ran out ran an agency. So she had staff she had male and female staff and she was based in the centre of London in New Oxford Street.
Caroline: Suddenly, that figure in the photograph had a backstory, a business even — Maud West wasn’t just someone messing around with a magnifying glass for a photograph. She had her own agency, and was advertising for clients in Britain’s biggest newspapers. Even more thrillingly, Susannah found that Maud’s life had intersected at least once with an author of detective fiction.
Susannah: The other thing I found on that first trawl in the Times was a mention of her chairing a meeting at which Dorothy Sayers was the guest of honour talking. It was a meeting of the efficiency club which I had no idea what that that was but erm I’ve looked into it in the book and a fascinating club of professional women that were set up in 1920 when 1919 and they had guest speakers they had social nights it was all about sort of women helping other women in the business world and Dorothy Sayers came along to do a talk on efficiency and murder and Maud was in the chair at night.
Caroline: But the next set of articles that Susannah found were a lot more confusing. It seems that as well as placing advertisements and posing for publicity photographs, Maud West also wrote articles about her own exploits. And what articles they were! You can read excerpts from them between the chapters in Susannah’s book, and they are really something. In them, Maud describes in the most extravagant terms how she has foiled blackmailers, narrowly escaped armed assailants, recovered diamonds, and travelled the world, often while in disguise as a man.
Susannah: That’s when I realised I’d bitten off quite a bit more than I thought I could chew in that Maud used the tropes of detective fiction to write supposedly true stories about her work in order to publicise herself.
Caroline: Quickly, though, Susannah realised that Maud wasn’t really expecting anyone to take these stories completely seriously. They made her a bit of money, but more importantly they helped to lodge her name and brand in the minds of any prospective clients among her readers. Again and again in her ridiculous tales, she focuses on the main kinds of cases that were the real-life Maud’s bread and butter: missing persons investigations, blackmail cases, and divorce. She also did slightly more specialised work, such as attending country house parties to catch card cheats and kleptomaniacs.
Divorce was the mainstay of the private detective business in Britain in the early twentieth century, for Maud and for other proprietors of detective agencies. To understand why this was, we need to go back to the mid nineteenth century when a bill called the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 moved the dissolution of marriages from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. Up until this point, divorce had been something that was only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged, since it required a lot of arcane legal argument and a private bill to be passed through parliament.
Once divorce became a matter for the ordinary civil courts and lawyers, the volume of cases increased enormously, from three in the year before the act to 300 the year after. There were still some major hurdles and inequalities that wouldn’t be corrected until the twentieth century, including the fact that although a husband could seek a divorce just because his wife had committed adultery, a wife had to prove adultery as well as another factor such as rape, desertion or incest. The history of divorce, especially from a feminist perspective, is a fascinating topic in its own right, but the relevant point for our story today is that using adultery as grounds for a divorce required proof — there was no such thing as a no fault or mutual consent divorce as there is today.
Adultery was the easiest and most popular grounds for divorce at the time when Maud was working, but couples who wished to use it needed to have proof and witnesses to present in court in order to get their marriage annulled. As divorce was still a highly controversial and scandalous proceeding, it was often difficult to persuade the people involved to appear, especially if participating in the case would result in notoriety or damage to their reputation. This problem created a market for an impartial but reputable observer, who could be hired by a suspicious spouse in order to collect the required evidence for the divorce petition. And this observer, of course, was the private detective. There are even some excellent accounts of how in cases where there was no adultery, but a couple wanted to get divorced, a detective could help “create” the required evidence for the courts by providing a husband with a sham mistress and a cast iron set of witnesses. This was commonly known as a “Brighton quickie”, since Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England, was a popular location for Londoners seeking to end marriages in this way.
As for the rest of Maud’s work? Well, she did all sorts, Susannah says.
Susannah: Blackmail really came into its own in the 1920s. And so Maude was working between 1985 and 1939 so it covers an amazing period of social change and and especially change in women’s lives. So that so divorce and blackmail and missing people. Nothing. It was very much easier to disappear in those days without term social media and CCTV and everything like that. So. And everything from checking up on people’s fiances to the business credit checking services because there weren’t credit checking agencies. They were basically snooped on everyone and anyone it want to hear and they would travel abroad to do it as well — they would they would go wherever they were needed [00:09:00][4.2]
Caroline: It would seem that there was plenty of work for a private detective in London in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. But was Maud the only woman to become a professional sleuth? More on that, after the break.
Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about an offer I have with Audible that is a bit of a win win — you can get a free audiobook, and I get some money to keep the podcast going. This is how it works: if you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription using the podcast’s link at shedunnitshow.com/audible, I get £5 back as a kind of finder’s fee. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy because I don’t have to give the fiver back! There are thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings, but today I want to particularly recommend that you choose the audiobook of Susannah’s book, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, which is read by the author herself and includes loads more detail that we weren’t able to cover in this episode. Visit shedunnitshow.com/audible and click the link at the top now to get your free audiobook and give the podcast some free money. Now, back to the show.
So, was Maud West the only lady detective in London?
Susannah: No she wasn’t. She was one of only a handful to actually run an agency. There were hundreds hundreds of female detectives because women were needed to be able to go undercover in places that men couldn’t. You bet. But no there were there were few very few who ran their own agencies and most of them didn’t last very long. But Maud had one great rival called Kate Easton who actually ran a detective agency literally across the road from her office.
Caroline: Maud and Kate were direct competitors, as women who ran rival agencies on the same street in London. Susannah is actually going to read us the bit of her book where she explains how this went down:
Susannah: So for 20 years their adverts battled it out in the newspapers jostling for the attention of readers in a pingpong of superlatives indefinite articles. Maude west London’s lady detective Kate Easton the lady detective Maude west London’s foremost lady detective Kate Easton London’s leading women in every branch of detective work and so on Maude won eventually if only because Kate Easton retired in 1929. By then of course Maude had been sending photographs of herself to the press with the caption London’s only lady detective for quite some time
Caroline: It’s interesting, I think, that both Maud and Kate made much of their gender in their advertisements — they clearly saw it as an advantage in their work and a possible attraction to their clients. It’s not hard to imagine why, either. Although much had changed for women in the decades during which Maud worked, British society at the time was still very rigid and governed by class hierarchies. A woman, especially dressed in the uniform of a servant, wasn’t of much consequence to most people, and could thus pass mostly unseen in lots of scenarios.
Funnily enough, we have an example of this tactic in fiction in the form of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 by Emma Orczy (who is more famous as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel). Lady Molly is a professional detective with the Metropolitan Police, and she relies heavily on what she calls her “feminine intuition” to solve cases, although a lot of the time it’s more owing to the fact that she can disguise herself as a charwoman and work in the house of a suspect to gather intelligence that a male detective would never get just by asking for it in the official manner.
Maud West was rather fond of a disguise, both for her publicity stories and her real cases. But who was she really? And what would make someone want to devote themselves to the life of a private detective, which was still considered a rather shady and seedy profession? Susannah has spent an awfully long time trying to find out.
Susannah: She was very elusive for quite some time and it was only when I started to find out that she was very elusive quite some time because as I found out she actually wanted to be. She had a sort of another persona hidden away which I eventually sort of found out. And it was only when I sort of managed to dig beneath the Maud West persona which is an absolute who I mean she would dress up as Charlie Chaplin and to show off her disguise skills and at one point she threatened to shoot a ghost. To say on such a publicity set as a publicity stunt to prove that it wasn’t real. But beneath that it was only when I managed to get beneath that that veneer theatre. Yes she did. I start to get a real sense of her as a person and of her her real life.
Caroline: We’re not going to say much more about this, because Maud’s story is a great whodunnit in itself and you should read the book to find out more. But something I am still curious about is how her life and work intersects with the detective fiction of the period — she was a professional, after all, not an amateur, and as a result her work differed quite a bit from that of Miss Marple, say. There’s a bit less murder and a bit more routine missing persons cases in Maud’s casebook.
Susannah: Well I would say that you do find her type of work in those things but there subplot subplots you know it. And private detectives rarely dealt with murder mainly because that was the police’s job. But then when you start talking about private detectives and the police it gets very tangled. Because the majority of private detectives in London during that time were in fact Scotland Yard inspectors who had retired set up their own agencies and then hired ex bobbies you know from the beat. So almost it’s sort of that apart from the fact that one was official and one wasn’t — it’s a real old boys network. Maud and Katie Easton also both employed ex police on their staff and everything. So there was there was that connection between police and private detectives. And I think when it came to murder cases I would be amazed if they weren’t consulted you know in some sort of swift pint after work kind of way. And but it would have been very much sort of behind the scenes and not something that would’ve ever come up in court which is one of the main ways that we can trace what was happening at this time because private detectives records very very rarely exist now because they just destroyed the confidentiality
Caroline: This last point is a good one: the reason why Maud West isn’t somebody that lots of people, even diehard fans of detective fiction know about, is because she was deliberately trying to fade into the shadows. That made Susannah’s job all the harder — Maud trod very lightly through the pages of history, and what traces Susannah has been able to find were very difficult to winkle out. In a way, she had to become a lady detective herself, tracking down a missing person.
Susannah: I think if I had known what it was going to be like I probably wouldn’t have started it. It was thrilling and hilarious. I mean I haven’t laughed as much doing any other research before. It is just wonderful things come. But there is one thing I like the fact this is the first quote in the book you find it which absolutely sums up how I feel at the end of writing this book. And it is something that Maud West wrote in 1914. “In all good faith to other women who would become detectives, I would utter one word of advice: don’t”. And she is spot on.
Caroline: You have been warned, aspiring lady detectives. Sleuthing isn’t quite as easy as the stories make it seem.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theladydetective. There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guest today Susannah Stapleton, and to The Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our recording.
Just a reminder, you can get the audiobook with Susannah reading her book about Maud West for free if you sign up for a trial with Audible, and by doing this you’re also making a £5 donation to the podcast. Head to shedunnitshow.com/audible to do that right now. I’ll be back on 24 July with another episode.