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Sister Sleuths (Paperback)

Female Detectives in Britain

True Crime P&S History Social History Women of History

By Dr Nell Darby
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Series: Trailblazing Women
Pages: 216
Illustrations: 20 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526780256
Published: 30th January 2021


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The 1857 Divorce Act paved the way for a new career for women: that of the private detective. To divorce, you needed proof of adultery – and men soon realised that women were adept at infiltrating households and befriending wives, learning secrets and finding evidence. Whereas previously, women had been informal snoops within their communities, now they were getting paid for it, toeing a fine line between offering a useful service and betraying members of their sex for money.

Over the course of the next century, women became increasingly confident in gaining work as private detectives, moving from largely unrecognised helpers to the police and to male detectives, to becoming owners of their own detective agencies. In fiction, they were depicted as exciting creatures needing money and work; in fact, they were of varying ages, backgrounds and marital status, seeking adventure and independence as much as money. Former actresses found that detective work utilised their skills at adopting different roles and disguises; former spiritualists were drafted into denounce frauds and stayed to become successful private eyes; and several female detectives became keen supporters of the women’s suffrage movement, having seen for themselves how career-minded women faced obstacles in British society.

These were groundbreaking women, working in the shadows, often unnamed in press reports. Even today, they are something of an unknown, yet of intense interest to the public, their work largely an enigma. This new book seeks to shed light on the female detectives who have worked over the past century and a half to uncover wrongdoing and solve crimes.

Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain by Nell Darby is an incredibly intriguing new non-fiction book. I've always been interested in hidden women's history and real life (and fictional) female detectives from the Victorian era especially is a topic I've always been interested in. This new release is a primer that discusses many from that era. There are some recognizable names, but quite a few were new to me and it made made want to learn all the more about them. It's so cool to see how fiction inspired real life, and also vice versa.

NetGalley, Lauren Stoolfire

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What could possibly be a more interesting topic for those who love to read about mysteries, sleuthing, poking around to discover secrets, disguises and the suffrage movement? Dr. Nell Darby has written this book encapsulating all this but what makes it even more fascinating is that the majority of it is set in the Victorian and Golden Age era and, as is obvious by the title, about women. Societal dictations played a huge role. Female sleuths sometimes chose investigating out of necessity (to find something out or financial purposes) or because there was a niche unfilled by male policemen. Some chose it for adventure and escapism, American and British alike.

Initially, women either took it upon themselves or were hired (one-time job, part time or full time) to investigate extramarital affairs and these women were called (or called themselves) private inquiry agents. The Divorce Act in 1857 offered alternatives but which was worse...to be granted a divorce or have their intimate details sounded in court?

Another facet which hadn't crossed my mind enough is the parallel between actresses and sleuths and the fact that several sleuthed after acting. This really makes sense as sleuthing involves slipping into roles. At first women were known for "hue and cry" but actively became involved. The book delves into the history of police as well. Allan Pinkerton was one of the first male investigators to hire females. Women made excellent detectives (still do!) for power of observation, keeping a low profile, befriending. They were often hired as domestic servants to spy on employers and to find thieves.

Many women agents are introduced here including Kate Warne, hired by Pinkerton, who investigated major cases. Another is Caroline Smith who was able to live on her earnings. Mary Burridge was one of the first known to include her occupation on the census. Some of the most infamous are Maud West, Kate Easton and Antonia Moser. You will read about many of the cases they were involved in, too. Read the molten lead story.
Soon detectives were advertising their skills in newspaper. Then females began pretending they were detectives in order to profit, such as living accommodation reductions and food. Authors soon wrote about women detectives and created them as characters in their books.

So much to love about this book. The photographs and illustrations add a personal touch. My favourites are of Frances Power Cobbe and Maud West who is photographed in a disguise!

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

About Dr Nell Darby

Dr Nell Darby is a historian and writer whose PhD is in the history of crime, but who originally trained as a newspaper journalist. As the descendant of Victorian performers and journalists, she has long been interested in the lives of nineteenth-century actors, and how these lives were reported in the newspapers. Nell writes the popular Criminal Historian blog; this is her third book.

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