Warning: This is not a fiction book … well it’s not classed as one. Maud West was a real person … of sorts. Look I know I’m not making much sense. Let me start again. This is not a book in the vein of an Agatha Christie work, a totally made up piece of writing. That being said there was a lot, how shall we say, embellishment in the life Miss Maud West.
I will have to put my hand up in the interests of honesty and say it took me a long time to get my head around this book. For the longest time I thought it was one giant hoax, something along the lines of Peter Jackson’s 1995 faux documentary Forgotten Silver about the fictional forgotten filmmaker Colin McKenzie. But no, it is all real.
Author Susannah Stapleton, during an unsuccessful attempt to binge read, fell down a rabbit hole when she started looking to see if there were any real female detectives. There were certainly fictional ones. The very book she was having difficulty getting into was about one such sleuth, Mrs Bradley. The first ‘real’ lady detective she came across was Maud West and from there she was off and running with researching the said lady.
Maud opened her agency in 1909 and mysteriously walked away from it totally in 1939. Now this is not all that long ago, within 100 years or so. You would think there would be a great deal of comprehensive accurate records from which good information could be obtained. Especially when the subject was a female working and being in charge of her own detective agency in what was a male dominated profession that in itself wasn’t often approved of.
Everything that there was to be found was scattered all over the show with no (for want of a better phrase) secure chain of custody although I am not even sure if this is the right terminology. It was very difficult to know what was ‘the truth’ and what was a fabrication. And the main culprit in this was, in fact, the woman herself, Maud West. Throughout her career she wrote articles about her exploits and to be frank, many of them appear to be a whole lot of hogwash. Many versions of the same story were told not just when discussing actual cases but how being a lady detective worked on a day to day basis. Many of these pieces appeared in the gutter or tabloid press so were automatically sensationalized for the readers of those publications. It is pretty safe to say that she was a shameless self promoter. So to say that the author had a hard time getting to know her quarry would be an understatement.
The fractured nature of the record meant that Stapleton had to look to broader sources to fill in some of the gaps so there were instances where we got little histories on diverging topics such as the disguises craze of the early 1900’s (yes it was a real thing) and the suffrage movement. While some of it was interesting, it was frustrating that Maud always felt just beyond reach and unwilling to reveal herself. Don’t get me wrong – this is of course not the author’s fault, but the fact remains that it made for some grumpiness (at least from this reader) at times when light failed to shine on the elusive Miss West. When you strip out this extra ‘padding’, you realise how little concrete and reliable evidence there is relating to Maud.
The book is presented with two voices. The chapters alternate between the story of the author’s search for Maud and Maud’s own tails of her work. This adds some interest but as you get further into the book, you realise just how fantastical all of it sounds and it can start to wear thin. And it does start to become jarring, the movement between the known and the manipulated.
I found this book overall to be enjoyable but a bit loose and frustrating. I am absolutely sure that some will pick it up thinking it is a new book about a fictional female detective and in a way it is because the image we are presented with, by the woman herself, is clearly not the truth of the matter.
She may have made seeking the truth her career of choice but Miss Maud West definitely did not practice that in her own life!
Rating: 2 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)