An investigation of her own set local writer Susannah Stapleton on the path of an intriguing London sleuth.
It’s often said that life imitates art, and that was definitely the case for Much Wenlock resident Susannah Stapleton.
“I was reading a 1930s crime novel featuring a woman sleuth and found myself wondering whether there really had been female private detectives in Britain at that time,” explains Susie, a passionate bibliophile who works at Wenlock Books, run by fellow book-lover Anna Dreda.
“At first, the only one I could find was Maud West. And that was all there was – a name and the words ‘London’s only lady detective’ (as it turned out, there were others) – but it was enough to get me hooked.”
A little more poking into Maud’s past revealed a fascinating character, and Susie found herself being drawn deeper and deeper into her story. She says, “I knew I’d stumbled across something special when I found some of Maud’s own writing: not only was she a real-life lady detective – and quite famous in her day – but she was a real hoot!
“That marked the start of a long journey trying to untangle fact from fiction, not just in the stories Maud told about her work, but those she told about herself. I think the truth I eventually uncovered about her private life, which she took great steps to hide, was just as astonishing as her work as ‘the female Sherlock Holmes’.”
Susie, an aspiring writer with a background in historical research who moved to Shropshire to study in 1996, started to develop her idea into a pitch for a book – but, like many first-time writers, she struggled to find an agent.
“In desperation, I applied to take part in the annual live pitching competition at the London Book Fair. It was terrifying, pitching my idea to a panel of top agents at one of the biggest industry events in the world, but it worked. I landed a great agent and was soon getting a book proposal ready.
“There was a lot of interest in Maud’s story from the start and it ended up going to auction, with bids from various publishers.”
Once the book’s future was secure thanks to a deal with Picador, Susannah christened it The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime, and she’s written it to reflect the investigative process through which it evolved. She says, “I’d say anyone who enjoys Agatha Christie and her fellow Golden Age crime writers will enjoy the book.
“It’s framed as an investigation into Maud West and her life and work – and there are many twists and turns as the truth emerges – but it also takes in the social history of the early 20th century along the way; a period when people’s private lives and passions were often at odds with what society expected of them. Nearly everyone in the book is up to no good in one way or another. So if you like a good scandal, this is the book for you!”
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime is published on Thursday 13 June, and Susie will be at Wenlock Books on Saturday 15 June from 11am to 4pm to sign copies. You can find out more about Susie and Maud at susannahstapleton.com.