First-time author Stapleton recounts how she was 11 years old in 1984 when she watched a television series of Agatha Christie's 1942 book "The Body in the Library", in which the tweedy Miss Marple did the deducing and nabbed the culprits. The youngster became entranced in whodunits and discovered that "there's nothing like a good murder to lift the spirits". Next, many crime books later, she didn't want to read about detectives, she wanted to be one.

Another lady sleuth, the eccentric Mrs Bradley, turned up in "Death at the Opera", written by Gladys Mitchell and published in 1934, and it set Stapleton thinking: were there real-life lady detectives, proper flesh-and-blood ones, in decades past? Whereupon the internet provided a reference in the National Archives Discovery catalogue that was a description of a press photo of "Miss Maud West, who is London's only Lady Detective examining handwriting through a magnifying glass to detect forgery in a case upon which she is at present engaged. From her offices in New Oxford Street, she travels all over the country on investigations".

The actual photo wasn't shown and the information was undated but it seemed to be inter-war (1918-39). The original photo was held at the Manchester Archives, so Stapleton, interest aroused, sent off for a copy.

The game was afoot, as they say in detective fiction land, although by now Maud West had slipped into obscurity and facts were difficult to find. For Stapleton she was just a shadow, a faceless blur. Gradually, though, details emerged. Further search uncovered two newspaper advertisements, one placed by West in 1909: "Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability. DIVORCE, SHADOWINGS &c. Intelligent Male and Female Staff."

The second advertisement was dated March 1936 and read "DON'T miss MAUD WEST'S REMINSCENCES" to be given verbally at an Exhibition of Women's Progress in London's West End. Clearly, then, West had at least had a fairly long career as a lady detective and had run a serious operation with a staff of assistants.

Stapleton was now hot on the trail. West, it was discovered, had set up her detective agency in 1905, getting her start posing as a maid in a Paris hotel where there had been a lot of petty thefts. Newspaper articles from 1903 to 1938 were unearthed, not just in Britain but reprints of British articles in the New York Tribune, Times of India, the Singapore Free Press, Perth Daily News and other foreign publications.

According to Eastern European reports from 1913 she was hired to blend in with guests at society parties to protect her hosts' property from damage by militant suffragettes (they liked slashing valuable paintings, for instance). An advertisement for a security agency in New Zealand listed her as an overseas agent for the famous Pinkerton's Detective Agency in New York, to chase debts.

West often took to disguise, many times as a man, as the photo from Manchester showed when it arrived. More photos slowly emerged, including one with a Chaplinesque moustache. Other articles had her gathering evidence of adultery for divorce cases, work that took her all over Europe.

A particular valuable part of the book is the 12 short stories written by Maud West herself, though Stapleton doubts the credulity of these and says they are completely over the top. Where does fact turn into fiction, she asks? West was a genuine and successful detective but also a hack writer churning out "true" adventure stories for the gutter press.

# Incognito, Maud West undercover in the 1920s

Still, real or not, they make entertaining reading, albeit often very brief and unadorned, such as –

"The Creeping Tiger" – Compromising letters between a well-known married hostess and a man with whom she had a foolish indiscretion have been stolen. Maud West suspects a jilted lover and she spends several days getting his acquaintance before being invited to his flat for dinner, where she drugs him, finds the letters in a desk, accidentally drops the desk lid with a bang and, in a panic, hides under a huge tiger skin rug on the floor and crawls underneath it to the door and escapes. Fortunately, it turns out that the bang did not wake the drugged man, and he missed the tiger skin spectacle.

"The Lady with the Blue Spectacles" – Maud is asked by a prominent society lady to find out all she can about another such lady within 24 hours. Discovering that the client has given a false name and address, Maud investigates her instead and discovers that she is a society fortune-teller. Maud deducts that her client wanted the information about the other lady in order to impress her at a forthcoming fortune-telling. When the lady in the blue spectacles comes to Maud's office to collect the expected information, the lady detective tells that she doesn't care much for such work, leaving the woman "with a much higher opinion of my abilities as a detective than when she entered it".

"The Diamond Necklace" – Maud goes to investigate at a great country house where a necklace has been stolen during a big gathering of society people. Given a list of the guests, she recognises the name of a man involved in a similar affair some years ago. Disguised in case the man may remember her, she follows him on the train to London and then to a pawnshop where he gets 100 pounds for the necklace. "He was not prosecuted, but I believe he had to leave the country."

Also, a rather bizarre undated story, "An Unusual Pastime, As related by the San Francisco Examiner". A young American woman wants her husband tailed, involving Maud disguising as a man with different facial makeup each time as she dogs him from Paris to Dover to London to New York. Crossing the Atlantic she keeps him under surveillance, one day as an elderly woman, another day as a heavily moustached man. What was the husband up to? He had turned to medical surgery and bought surgeon's knives and implements in Paris. A shady doctor paid 50 dollars for a body fished for the husband to dissect. The would-be amateur surgeon ends up in the hands of a psychiatrist and is removed to a private mental home.

Plus, rounding off a fascinating biography, an interview with the lady herself titled "Such a Dull Job! Or, Fifteen Minutes with a London Woman Detective" reprinted from the Daily Mail Atlantic Edition of June 17, 1931. This opens up amusingly: "When I called upon her at her New Oxford Street offices, Miss Maud West was not clad in a dressing-gown, sitting in a deep armchair and playing with a violin, with a hypodermic syringe of cocaine at her elbow." She describes the job as very dull indeed, though concedes she couldn't live without it now, after a quarter century of it. The only excitement she can recall is two incidents when guns were pointed at her, but neither seems to have been a big deal for her.

As Stapleton digs deeper, the elusive details of a fascinating life are gradually unearthed. It transpires that rather than being the barrister's daughter West claimed, she was actually Edith Elliott, a sailor's illegitimate daughter from Deptford, south-east London. And she was neither London's premier nor only female sleuth, as she claimed.

There were other detective firms owned and run by women, and many women were 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. Her book is a detective story in its own right, a most readable mix of biography, social history and real-life mystery.

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