When I met Susannah Stapleton at Alibis in the Archive a couple of years ago, she told me about a book she was working on, which sounded intriguing to say the least. We've met and spoken about it a couple of times since then, and I was very pleased to see it come out to highly positive reviews a short while ago. I've now had a chance to read it for myself.
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, is published by Picador and subtitled "Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime". Sounds tempting, doesn't it? I was hooked just from looking at the chapter titles - they are taken from the titles of classic crime books, starting with a prologue called "The Lady Vanishes" in which we learn about the mysterious Maud West, who was a private investigator based in London in the early part of the twentieth century. On finding out about her, Susannah decided to do a bit of amateur sleuthing herself, and this book is the result.
The market for non-fiction has changed in recent years. The internet offers such a mass of information that, to sell a book to a major publisher, let alone to readers, one has to offer something appealing that isn't available simply by Googling. There are various ways of achieving this, but a sensible technique is to tell a story - to produce what is often called "narrative non-fiction" - rather than simply to record facts.
Susannah Stapleton does this in very engaging fashion. She focuses on her personal voyage of discovery as she delved into the life of an interesting woman with a fascinating occupation. Her detective work , entertainingly described, strikes me as rather splendid. I was especially interested to discover that Maud was based in the same building as Dr Crippen a building that I visited myself when I was researching Dancing for the Hangman - though I wasn't aware of Maud's existence at the time. Dorothy L. Sayers also features in the story. I found the details of several of Maud's cases interesting, and indeed one of them has given me an idea for a story of my own. I may write it one of these days, but in the meantime I can say that this is a book that definitely lived up to expectations. I really enjoyed reading it.