Book review–Nell Darby’s Sister Sleuths delves into early history of women detectives

Sister Sleuths cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Some history books rehash familiar territory, and some tread entirely new, unexplored ground.  Nell Darby’s Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain is the latter.  Tapping into a rich but hidden vein of criminology history, Darby uncovers the true stories of professional female investigators from the Victorian age through the early 20th century.

More scholarly text than popular nonfiction, Darby’s work mines census data, newspaper reporting and advertising, and court records to follow the path of private detection as a career appealing to British women from the 1860s to the 1930s.  In short, bite-sized chapters divided by theme and chronology, Sister Sleuths tracks the evolution of the private investigation industry.  Working side-by-side with their male counterparts, female detectives brought particular skills (real or perceived) to the job.

Darby takes a look at how these women worked, the cases they tackled, and how they were perceived by their peers, colleagues, and the public.  Fascinatingly, Darby was able to track the careers of several of her main characters over the course of decades, as both the world and the industry changed dramatically.

From divorce cases to shoplifting, seances and more, Darby’s sleuths embraced a life of danger, excitement, and independence often at odds with period expectations for women.  She demonstrates that early female detectives came from all walks of life, and entered the career for all reasons.  Contrary to even modern popular conceptions, Darby proves that as long as there have been private investigators, there have been women working in the field.  As she notes, the historical record often overlooks the contributions of women, making them less visible to future generations.  This is an important book to begin setting the record straight.

Recommended for fans of Victorian true crime and students of history, Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain is available now here at Amazon, published by Pen & Sword True Crime.

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