The Secret History of Female Sleuths
Female private eyes have been a staple of popular culture for over 150 years – from plucky Victorian ladies to ‘busy body spinsters’ and fearless modern investigators.
But what about the real women detectives? What crimes did they solve? Where are their stories?
Private Inquiries will reveal the true tales of female private eyes from the 1850s to today – including Victorian sleuth Antonia Moser, ‘Mrs Sherlock Holmes’ of the 1950s Annette Kerner, and former president of the World Association of Detectives Zena Scott-Archer.
Private Inquiries will be published by the History Press in 2023.
Women have worked as private detectives in Britain since at least the mid 19th century, handing cases of divorce, theft, missing people, debt, blackmail, fraud, burglary, industrial espionage and sometimes murder. Yet despite a century of catching crooks, female detectives are absent from most history books – and very few ever wrote their own stories.
So who were the first female private eyes? How did they succeed in the macho world of detection and crime? What were their relationships with other women – the ones they befriended, exposed and brought to trial?
Detective work has long been regarded as an unsuitable job for a woman, yet ‘feminine’ traits such as intuition, imagination and empathy, are also seen as necessary requirements for the job. Many believe female detectives have a distinct advantage. Women are known for their ability to get information out of strangers; we create less suspicion and pose less of a threat than men. We are highly skilled observers, and we’re known for our close attention to detail.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, women like Antonia Moser, Kate Easton, Maud West and Annette Kerner launched their own detective agencies and became celebrities both at home and abroad. Zena Scott-Archer enjoyed a career that spanned nearly 50 years, and was the leading female investigator on the world stage.
Yet now only eight percent of the roughly 10,000 self-employed private detectives in Britain are female. Why aren’t there more women in the field today?
The idea behind the book
I’ve been fascinated by female detectives ever since I started researching Queens of the Underworld and the criminal activities of The Forty Elephants in the early 1900s. The all-female shoplifting gang created work for other women, as private detectives in department stores. Women were not yet allowed to join the police force, yet here were store detectives working undercover, apprehending offenders, and testifying as expert witnesses in court. They sounded like tough women.
I wondered who the store detectives were and what their lives were like. Then I wondered why I could name numerous fictional female sleuths – Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Cordelia Grey, Charlie’s Angels, Jessica Fletcher, Lisbeth Salander, Precious Ramotswe – but not a single one in real life. I also wondered, what do private investigators actually do?
Training & Research
To get a better understanding of the job, I’ve completed a BTEC Level 3 Award for Professional Investigators, run by the Association of British Investigators (ABI). The private detective industry remains unregulated in the UK; anyone can set up as a private investigator, regardless of their skills or criminal record, without any form of license or qualification. According to the ABI, when licensing is introduced then the Level 3 is expected to become the industry standard.
I’ve also completed a Diploma in Private Investigation, through the UK Professional Investigators Network (UKPIN). The course provides a thorough explanation of areas such as process serving, which has formed a central part of a PIs job ever since the days of the Bow Street Runners in the early 19th century.
To get an insight into the life of modern investigators, I’m interviewing a range of current PIs – including a woman who solves cases of online ‘cat fishing’, a specialist in cold case homicides, and an expert in undercover work for wealthy clients. What makes a good PI? What are the moral, ethical and legal dilemmas when it comes to investigation and surveillance?
Meet Some of the Detectives
‘The first female detective’, 1850s
‘Peephole servant’, 1850sElizabeth Joyes
Railway detective, 1850s
‘A very intelligent woman,’ 1860s
Margaret Saunders – Clubnose
‘Make me one of yourselves—a detective’, 1870s
‘I only go where a stylishly-dressed person is required’, 1880s
’A woman of the world’, 1890s
‘A stylish, aristocratic looking lady’, 1900s
’Maud West’s life would enchant Agatha Christie’, 1900s
’How did I become a lady detective? That is a question which I have often been asked’. Head of Selfridges Secret Service’, 1910
‘London’s Leading Woman In Every Branch of Detective Work’, 1910
‘A very kind lady detective’, 1920s
‘I have had a few tussles, but I have never yet got the worst of it’, 1930s
‘Whenever I step into my consulting room in Baker Street, my spine tingles with excitement’, 1950s
‘Of course I’m following you, you have been doing such interesting things’, 1960s
‘Queen of true confessions and special investigations’, 1990s
Very little has ever been written about real life female private eyes, particularly in the UK. But with the recent publication of two great books – Sister Sleuths by Nell Darby and The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton – it looks like female PIs are finally coming out of the shadows.