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My new mystery novel, The Last Place You Look, centres on female private investigator Roxane Weary as she re-investigates a 15-year-old murder case. Writing crime fiction from a woman’s point of view was a natural decision for me – as a woman and a feminist, I want to read more stories like this, so why not write one myself? But I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of other writers who have taken on what has historically been a bit of a boys’ club.
A crime novel from the point of view of a female detective is much more than just a difference of chromosomes. Women obviously have a different experience to men of moving through the world – and law enforcement – which is necessarily reflected in these stories. Female detectives in fiction contend with rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed, in addition to battling the mysteries at the centre of their cases. They also bring a different sensibility to their work, and solve crimes in ways that men never could.
Below is a list of 10 outstanding female detectives in fiction, ranging from police officers to private investigators to avid readers roaming the Sussex Downs, each of them solving mysteries on their own terms.
1. Antoinette Conway
(The Secret Place and The Trespasser by Tana French)
A Dublin murder squad detective with a massive working-class chip on her shoulder, Antoinette is cynical, blunt, perceptive, and tenacious – and nobody likes her. At least not most of her colleagues, and because of the exact same qualities that make her good at her job. Constantly at odds with her squadmates and assuming they’re all waiting for her to fail, Antoinette’s obsession with proving them wrong verges on paranoia at times. But she’s also, usually, right – something all women can relate to.
2. Kinsey Millhone
(The Alphabet series by Sue Grafton)
Kinsey was one of the pioneering female private investigators in the 80s, and while we’ve followed her through 25 alphabetised mysteries so far, Kinsey’s cases have all been conducted in that decade, so all of her adventures take place in a period of a few years. She is smart and pragmatic – decidedly not reckless like many fictional detectives (my own included) – and quite rightly hugely popular.
3. Anna Lee
(Under Contract, Backhand and four other novels by Liza Cody)
Preceding Kinsey Millhone, London’s Anna Lee, who first appeared in 1980’s Dupe isn’t especially well known in the US, but she should be. Smart, sly, exceedingly competent, Anna has a deliciously droll voice, as she deals expertly with sexism from her co-workers at Brierly Security – including the only other woman in the office, her boss’s secretary.
4. Elouise “Lou” Norton
(Trail of Echoes, Land of Shadows and other novels by Rachel Howzell Hall)
On a squad full of white men, Lou Norton is a black woman working as a homicide detective in South Central Los Angeles where she, too, grew up. Lou’s childhood ended early when her older sister disappeared, and she chose this career partly to make sense of what happened. I love the smart, snappy voice in this series, as well as the way Lou is feminine and tough at the same time.
5. Claire DeWitt
(Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran)
The two books (so far) in the DeWitt series are the most exciting mysteries I’ve read in a long, long time. Claire is a disciple of Jacques Silette (a French detective-cum-philosopher and author of Detection, a quotable treatise on investigation) as well as Cynthia Silverton (a Nancy Drew-esque teen detective from a 70s comic), and the voices of these two figures wind in and out of Claire’s present-day cases, along with flashbacks to her own adolescence, Chinese medicine, the I Ching, cocaine, vintage records … it sounds like a busy mix, but the way Gran tells this story is nothing short of captivating.
6. Alex Morrow
(Still Midnight, Gods and Beasts and three other novels by Denise Mina)
This female detective is a bit different to the others on this list in several ways. One, she’s not a loner – she has kids and a husband at home – and two, the books she stars in aren’t typical whodunnits, but complicated explorations of the damage crime does to society. Alex is smart, angry, and compelling.
7. Carlotta Carlyle
(Lie Down With the Devil, A Trouble of Fools and 10 other novels by Linda Barnes)
The tall, red-headed, half-Irish, half-Jewish, ex-cop, ex-cabbie Carlyle opens each mystery with a Yiddish proverb (courtesy of her bubbe) but make no mistake – there’s nothing cosy about this series. With a distinctive voice and a world fleshed out with a vivid supporting cast that includes a mafioso lover, an eccentric tenant-slash-assistant and an “adopted” Little Sister from the Big Sisters Association, this is one of my favourite mystery series.
8. Darlene O’Hara
(Buried on Avenue B and Shadows Still Remain by Peter de Jonge)
Teen mom turned NYPD detective Darlene O’Hara has a son named Axl Rose, a burgeoning drinking problem, and a sensitive, deeply perceptive way about her. She’s wonderfully relatable in Shadows Still Remain (which features a twist that I still think about, eight years after I first read it) and Buried on Avenue B.
9. Mary Russell
(Pirate King, Dreaming Spies and 15 other books by Laurie R King)
The Sussex Downs, 1915: a teenage bookworm, Mary Russell bumps – literally – in to Sherlock Holmes while engaged in the dangerous pastime of reading while walking. This Holmes has retired from detection and spends his time beekeeping. Mary becomes his apiarist apprentice as well as detecting in this inventive series. Holmes is a supporting character here, and Mary – smart, observant, fiercely feminist – is every bit as good a detective as her more famous patron.
10. Smilla Jaspersen
(Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg)
A strange, haunting book. You can practically feel the biting Copenhagen winter as Smilla, a former scientist and current brooding loner, investigates the death of her six-year-old neighbour Isaiah. The police think he fell off a roof, but the footprints in the snow tell Smilla a different story. She’s brainy, cynical, and doggedly set on solving what turns out to be a chilling conspiracy surrounding a glacial expedition.
• The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber, priced£7.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £6.79.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Top 10 female detectives in fiction | Books