When I first started writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries, while I loved the idea of Edwardian girl detectives, I had a feeling that it was unlikely that my heroines Sophie and Lil had many real-life counterparts. Although I’d come across works of fiction like Revelations of a Lady Detective, and The Female Detective published in the mid-19th century I suspected that real lady detectives at this time had in fact been few and far between. And although many new opportunities were opening up for women in the early 20th century, I couldn’t somehow imagine that there were really many young women who had the opportunity to work as professional detectives as Sophie and Lil do in my stories – never mind setting up their own detective agency. However…
Reader, I was entirely wrong.
In my research for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, I’ve discovered that there were many women engaged in detective work both in London and further afield in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. In fact, one of the first lady detectives Kate Warne got a job at the famous Chicago agency Pinkerton’s as early as 1856. By 1894, Henry Slater (head of one of London’s largest detective agencies) was advertising Slater’s Women Detectives and at around the same time, Moser’s Ladies Detective Agency was set up by his rival, the ex-Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser. Meanwhile, Kate Easton was one of the first lady detectives to set up her own agency in London, which she established in 1905, declaring: ‘Blackmail, divorce, evidence, robbery, I undertake it all; I have touched everything except murder.’
Meanwhile, although women could not officially work for the police in the UK, Scotland Yard had been quietly hiring lady detectives to help with their cases as early as 1899. And across the pond in the USA, Isabella Goodwin was hired as New York’s first woman police detective in the 1900s, investigating burglars and swindlers; whilst Frances Benzecry worked as a detective for the medical societies of Brooklyn and Manhattan to expose fake medical pracitioners.
Anyone who has read the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents will be interested to hear that another place women detectives could often be found in the 1900s was in London’s department stores! Stores like my own (fictional) Sinclair’s would frequently hire women to help prevent shoplifting, as women detectives were better able to blend in with the customers. When it opened in 1909, Selfridges hired a detective named Matilda Mitchell as the head up its very own ‘secret service’. She and her staff helped to catch thieves and frustrate the efforts of gangs like the ‘Forty Elephants’ who would sweep into the shop and cause a rumpus, while others quickly stuffed furs and expensive trinkets into outfits fitted with pockets especially for the purpose.
Maud reportedly set up her own detective agency in 1905: she had a number of both male and female detectives working for her, and an office in Bloomsbury. She had a particular eye for publicity, placing advertisements in the press (‘Maud West, Lady Detective. Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability’) but also writing colourful newspaper stories about her cases, seeking out publicity stunts, and circulating pictures of herself in various disguises.
According to her own accounts, her detective work involved everything from unmasking blackmailers to foiling jewel thieves to infiltrating dangerous gangs. She frequently used disguises, changing her appearance with wigs and make-up, and often dressed as a man, occupying rooms in a hotel as a ‘titled Englishman’ and following her suspects ‘into their clubs, playing baccarat beside them at the Monte Carlo Casino. She would reportedly disguise herself as ‘a shabby old scrubwoman’ at 5pm before being at the Ritz elegantly dressed for dinner by 7pm. She even claimed to have been involved in catching foreign spies, and just like Sophie and Lil, apparently worked for the British intelligence services during the First World War.
Something else that I was particularly intrigued to discover about Maud is that just like Sophie she appears to have started her career as a shop assistant – possibly even working in millinery – and that just like Lil she may have spent some time on the stage.
Later, her two daughters also came to work for her as detectives. One newspaper reported that her daughter Vera (described as ‘a pretty fair-haired girl of 17’ when she first started working for Maud) was such a clever young detective that she was dubbed ‘Miss Sherlock Holmes’.
It seems that my idea of Edwardian girl detectives was not so very far-fetched after all!
There are obviously lots of children’s and young adult books set elsewhere in Russia, or that are inspired by Russian folk tales. However, these five all have scenes that are set specifically in and around St Petersburg (or Leningrad) itself.
Deep in the snowy woods, Feo lives in a wooden house, with her mother – a ‘wolf-wilder’ who helps to re-wild the wolves that foolish men have tried to tame. Feo has grown up amongst the wolves, and could howl before she could talk. But when the Russian Army appear and kidnap her mother, Feo’s life is turned upside down. Now she must travel through the harsh winter landscape to St Petersburg to try and rescue her mother, teaming up with some unexpected new friends she meets along the way. This is an enchanting story from Katherine Rundell, with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations from Gelrev Ongbico. Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
In this reimagining of the classic story of The Prince and the Pauper set in Tsarist Russia, Elena lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her future is bleak, until the night that a grand steam train stops unexpectedly at her village’s abandoned station. Aboard is Ekaterina, a girl who looks just like Elena, although in every other way she couldn’t be more different. Soon the two girls have switched places and Elena is on her way to St Petersburg – beginning an extrordinary adventure that also features a Fabergé Egg, the mythical Firebird, a prince in disguise, and the famous Baba Yaga herself.
In this instalment of Lauren St John’s engaging Laura Marlin series, young detective Laura, her faithful husky Skye and her friend Tariq have left behind their Cornish home for another adventure abroad. This time they’re joining a film crew in the faraway city of St Petersburg. But once on the set of ‘The Artistocratic Thief’, a new movie about an art heist, they find themselves mixed up in a real-life mystery.
Set in 1938, during the time of Stalin’s purges, this is the intriguing story of 7-year-old Shura. He leads a normal life in Leningrad, going to school, playing with his friends, and fighting with his big sister. But then his Mama, Papa and baby brother Bobka suddenly disappear without trace. The neighbours are saying they were enemies of Stalin, who have been taken away by the mysterious ‘Raven’. Desperate to reunite his family, Shura sets out to hunt down the ‘Raven’ – but there are strange adventures ahead.
On a school trip to St Petersburg, Sophie and her friends get aboard the wrong train. They are rescued by the beautiful and mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them to her winter palace and mesmerises them with stories of lost diamonds and a tragic past. But as night falls and wolves prowl, Sophie discovers that secrets – and dangers – are lying in wait for her in the crumbling palace …
Finally of course I have to mention Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Spies in St Petersburg! In the second in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, it’s 1911 and Sophie is missing in action after an explosive Secret Service Bureau mission in Paris. Lil decides to take matters into her own hands, setting out to track her down in misty and mysterious St Petersburg. But can they uncover the identity of their true enemy – and can they trust anyone, even the Bureau itself?
If you have a favourite children’s book set in St Petersburg I’d love to hear about it – leave me a comment below!
If you enjoyed this list then do check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:
The second book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, Spies in St Petersburg is out now! As I’m currently on maternity leave I haven’t managed to celebrate in quite such an epic way as for my last book (no trip to Paris this time!) but I’ve still been enjoying welcoming this new book into the world.
Here’s a reminder of what you can expect from Spies in St Petersburg:
Following on from Peril in Paris, this new book delves further into the thrilling world of espionage. Sophie is still missing in action after an explosive mission in Paris, leaving Lil to take matters into her own hands.
On a new mission for the Secret Service Bureau, can Lil find Sophie in misty, mysterious St. Petersburg? Can they uncover the identity of their true enemy and can they trust anyone – even the Bureau?
Check out this post I wrote for the Egmont blog about how I visited St Petersburg to research the book, which includes lots of photographs from my Russian adventures. And take a look at my Spies in St Petersburg Pinterest board full of visual inspirations here.
I’m already enjoying seeing all the responses to the book online, including quite a lot of reactions to the book’s ending which just might be a tiny bit of a cliffhanger…
I’m absolutely in love with the stunning and sumptuous cover for this thrilling Russian adventure for Sophie and Lil, which has once again been illustrated by the marvellous Karl James Mountford. Karl and designer Laura Bird always come up with such incredible artwork – I can’t wait to see the internal illustrations.
In this sequel to Peril in Paris, Sophie and Lil will be heading to Imperial Russia for a thrilling adventure, where they will soon discover that the glittering palaces and extraordinary entertainments of St Petersburg are hiding sinister secrets. Here’s a bit more about what you can expect from the new book:
With Sophie still missing in action after their explosive mission in Paris, Lil decides to take matters into her own hands. On a new mission for the Secret Service Bureau, can Lil find Sophie in misty, mysterious St Petersburg? Can they uncover the identity of their true enemy and can they trust anyone – even the Bureau? It’s time for Sophie and Lil to put their spy skills to the test.
If you’ve read Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, you’ll know that an air race plays a very important part in the story. The Grand Aerial Tour of Europe, which appears in the book, is fictional – but it’s inspired by some of the real-life air races which really did take place during the 1910s.
In this post as part of my Behind the Scenes series, I’m going to talk a little bit more about these air races, and why they were so important. In the 1910s aeroplanes were still a very new invention: although people had been experimenting with aviation for some time, it was only in 1903 that the Wright Brothers had achieved ‘sustained, controlled, powered flight’ – in other words, the first proper aeroplane flight.
In the years that followed, aviation rapidly became popular. France was one of the nations that quickly embraced the new technology, producing many young pilots known for their daring and vitesse (speed). In Germany, Prince Heinrich (the Kaiser’s brother) became the first Royal to take to the air – and in 1910 learned to fly an aeroplane himself. Aviation quickly gained popularity in America, and Japan also took a keen interest, sending army officers to France and Germany to train as pilots. (The character of Captain Nakamura in Peril in Paris is loosely based on the real-life Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa who went to France to learn to fly and then piloted the first ever flight in Japan, which took place in Tokyo in December 1910.)
Initially Britain was more cautious: rather than the government, it was actually newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe who pointed out the particular importance of flight for Britain, declaring that ‘England is no longer an island’ after Louis Bleriot’s successful crossing of the Channel by plane (fun fact for fans of the Sinclair’s Mysteries -Bleriot’s plane was later exhibited at Selfridges department store so that people could come and see it for themselves, which I can well imagine happening at Sinclair’s!) With this in mind, it was Lord Northcliffe who initiated one of the most important British air-races – the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain – to boost the popularity of aviation in the UK.
By 1911, when Peril in Paris is set, air races had become very popular, offering bold young pilots the chance to show off their skills, test out their new planes – and win impressive prizes. Real-life examples that helped inspire my fictional Grand Aerial Tour of Europe include the 1911 Circuit of Europe Race, which covered a distance of almost 1,000 miles, and was sponsored by the French newspaper Le Journal. 500,000 spectators turning out to see the start of the Circuit of Europe Race.
Many of the pilots who took part in these races soon became famous, including the likes of Louis Bleriot, Hubert Latham, Eugene Lefebvre and Leon Delagrange. However, early aviation was tough: whilst 43 pilots took part in the Circuit of Europe Air Race, only nine of them managed to complete the whole course successfully. Three of them were killed in fatal accidents – early aviation was dangerous, and plane crashes and fires were relatively common. Air races could be dangerous for spectators too: during the Paris-to-Madrid Air Race which also took place in 1911, the French Minister of War, Henri Berteaux, was killed, and others were injured when an aircraft lost power and crashed into the crowd at the start of the race.
At around the same time that these air races were taking place, governments around the world were beginning to see the potential of aviation for military and intelligence use – as journalist Roberta Russell points out to Sophie in Peril in Paris. The Italians were the first to use planes for surveillance, in their war with Turkey in 1911. Just a few years later, when World War I broke out, aeroplanes would have a crucially important role to play.
If you’re interested in finding out more about aviation during this period, I’d recommend KM Peyton’s Flambards books for young adults, in particular The Edge of the Cloud. You might also be entertained by the 1965 film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, a comedy set in 1910 based around a fictional air-race from London to Paris. It seems very dated now, but it’s fun and intriguing to see one of the 1910s air races brought to life on screen!
The pictures in this post come via my Peril in Paris Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more images that helped inspire the book.