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Sister Sleuths (Paperback)

Female Detectives in Britain

P&S History > Social History P&S History > True Crime 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: 20th 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.

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Who Do You Think You Are, September 2023

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History Revealed

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BBC History Revealed, March 23

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BBC History Revealed, Jan 23

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History Revealed

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History Revealed

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History Revealed

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BBC History Revealed

"This book should be on the shelf of anyone writing historical crime fiction of the 19th or 20th centuries."

Read the review here

Historical Novel Society

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BBC History June 2021

I loved reading about the history of female detectives and private investigators. The women were able to get divorces thanks to the Divorce Act, but they must prove adultery. And prove it they do. They often befriended other women who would investigate other women's husbands. It was incredibly fascinating.

NetGalley, Katie Martin

"The whole subject is fascinating, not least the contrast with the female detectives of fiction."

The Sherlock Holmes Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Society

This was a really interesting academic deep dive into the history, both fact and lore, of female detectives... the writing style was engaging (if very British), and it was a fascinating window into a lesser known aspect of history.

NetGalley, Chelsea Lytal

Far from simply prurient curtain-twitchers, these talented women were undoubtedly important to the preservation of the social order in many British cities and towns.

WDYTYA? Magazine July 21

A well-researched book on the rise of the female detective.

I was extremely surprised to learn that female sleuths have been around far longer that I thought. Many years before the suffragette movement began there were lady detectives working for existing male owned agencies or even running their own agencies; making a go of their businesses and supporting their families with the income.

Allan Pinkerton hired a lady named Kate Warne as far back as 1856.

Many departmental stores began to hire women as store detectives realising that they were able to blend in easily with the customers. Who would ever imagine that the elegant lady, perhaps choosing perfume, was standing next to, and watching with intent, another woman whom she suspected of shoplifting?

We also learn that, in 1925, a retired detective Charles Kelsey, from The Metropolitan Police, opened up a college for female undergraduates wishing to become private detectives. This college was in London’s Baker Street but at number 130 not 221B!

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2014 that all private detective agencies had to be licensed.

An absorbing book, well written, with a surprise in every chapter. I learned something about Charles Dickens that I wasn’t aware of and, also an amazing fact about the date on which the Witchcraft Act was repealed.

This book is a really good read.

For the Love of Books

I really do enjoy these books published by Pen & Sword Books, they publish such a wide variety of subjects with women as the central theme of the book. This book is certainly no different in that it takes a look at the role of women in the detective industry. Now I know the role of women has been down played in most industries throughout history, but I think we certainly have one profession here where women could greatly do a better job than most men. If only we knew about it and they were given the right to the job. This book properly looks at female sleuthing from the start of the 19th century through to the mid 20th century. It looks at how women were used, the type of crimes they could help against and with, and where women were stronger at certain jobs and detecting than men were. It also goes a lot into the types of women that carried out this work and why. This is a very good book indeed and certainly one I would recommend to others.

5 stars

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UK Historian

This is a fascinating book because it talks about women who were "real" detective but it also talks about women's history and I liked how well researched and written is.
It's a fascinating and informative read that I recommend.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

A unique and inherently fascinating history that brings a particular aspect of the role of women in law enforcement up out of obscurity, "Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain" is an impressively well written, organized and presented study that is truly extraordinary and unreservedly recommended for community, college, and university library Women's History and Criminology collections.

Read the full review here

Midwest Book Review

And here's another brilliant Pen and Sword, this time about female detectives - it has a touch of Holywood glamour about it, and talks about a time when women were just becoming a force to be reckoned with (in the nicest possible way, of course!). Absolutely enthralling stuff.

Books Monthly

One thing that really stuck out to me was the amount of thorough research that has clearly gone into this book. Darby provides us with so much information and lots of notes. She does this in such an accessible way making it extremely readable, which as someone who doesn’t read a lot of non fiction, really appealed to me.

The Agatha Christie and just general detective novel fan inside me was singing. Maybe becoming a private detective is the career for me.

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Instagram, @thebookdiaryofmisshewlett

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Since my introduction to the world of Nancy Drew and Miss Marple I have been an avid reader of mysteries featuring female sleuths of all kinds. This book is a must for anyone who wonders about the real world of women detecting.
The 1857 Divorce Act opened the door for women to work as investigators, gathering the evidence need in court. Often it was a on again off again form of employment but some women were able to make a living at it. Many were in the theater which makes sense as they were gifted at roles and disguise. Besides digging up dirt on a spouse for a divorce, women were able to take on the role of a house maid in cases of suspected theft. Women of the time were often ignored and overlooked - women tend to be more observant and trusted. Before England had a police force the victim of a crime had to be their own police, doing the investigating, often with help of family and friends and then presenting their case to the local magistrate. When the Bow Street Runners were formed and later Peel and his "Peelers", women who who were related to the men who policed the community learned a lot by observation. As society evolved in its attitude to women, women found a new place in it. Pinkerton was the first detective agency to hire a woman and the British were watching.
As the author says, information on these female inquiry agents was hard to find but what she did manage to uncover made for an excellent read. I learned so much and I'm certain that the next historical mystery I read featuring a female sleuth will be all the more enjoyable with my new found information.

NetGalley, Susan Eggers

Any fan of history, women’s history, or British history should be fascinated with this.

NetGalley, Audrey Hammer

I'm a big fan of true crime, women's history, and the literary detective.
This book delivers!

If you like the thrill of Sherlock Holmes, love history, and adore the badass women, I can only recommend this book

NetGalley, Christina Frøkjær

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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