A friend pointed me to a piece in The Guardian this week, alerting me to the fact my own creation, Beatrice Stubbs, was recommended in the comments. I was pleased to be mentioned and fascinated by the author’s choices.
Drawn like a magnet to lists, I started making one of my own. In doing so, it became clear that the kind of female crime fighter I prefer is a rounded, flawed human being whose greatest asset is her mind.
From The Guardian’s Top Ten, Smilla Jaspersen would have made my list too, as would Claire DeWitt, but here are ten more brilliant women battling injustice, roughly in order of when I discovered them.
Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith
His other heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is more popular, but I return to Isabel Dalhousie again and again.
The setting of Edinburgh, a eclectic collection of endearing characters, our heroine’s sharp self-awareness and the philosophical questioning of moral choices are exactly what I want to read.
Plus she’s an older woman, embracing the ageing process with good grace. No kick-boxing here.
Blanche White by Barbara Neely
An African-American maid/housekeeper who has a nose for mysteries, this character is also a social and political commentator on the unjust world in which she lives.
Her strength and intelligence reflect the author’s, a multi-talented mould-breaker who remains an inspiration. This little interview says it all. Wonderful precursor to The Help with layers of analysis couched in tales of mystery.
Harriet Vane by DL Sayers
I was introduced to Harriet by my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth. ‘Your writing reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers’, she said. On hearing I’d not read any Sayers, she recommended Gaudy Night, and I’ve never looked back. There is something about The Golden Age of Crime I cannot resist. Plus Sayers, Marsh and Tey characters inhabit a world of steam trains and bicycles without a smartphone to be seen.
Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson
Not a fan of excessive violence or torture in crime fiction, I avoided Larsson’s work for a long time. But when I did finally read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, I found his depiction of this unconventional personality and mind truly appealing. This character-driven element of his work led me to read more, mostly because of this girl.
Temperance Brennan by Kathy Reichs
Someone gave me a huge box of crime hardbacks as she was leaving the country. Most of them were so clichéd and graphic I gave up on them, with the exception of Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs. The latter introduced me to Tempe. She’s a forensic anthropologist, bilingual and professionally smart if not so much in her personal life. The author wears her expertise lightly, enabling her creation to be expert, flawed and politically astute. She’s also now the subject of a TV series called Bones.
Clarice Starling, by Thomas Harris
Harris is most famous for his unforgettable villain, Hannibal Lecter. But Clarice is a brilliant psychological portrait of a hard-working, vulnerable woman whose determination and persistence enable her to hunt down her man from the smallest of clues. She has a brain and uses all of it.
Ellen Kelly by Sheila Bugler
Sheila is a friend and colleague, whose work I admire enormously.
Like McCall Smith, her setting (South London) is vital, but it’s the damaged, struggling, personable character of Kelly that draws you into the story.
She’s a real woman with a high-pressure job, two kids, and more than one tragedy in her past. After three books, I feel I know this woman and care what happens next.
Start with Hunting Shadows, the first in the series.
Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich
Crime is rarely funny, but there is a place for dark, wry humour and Evanovich has it in spades. Dry, sassy, feisty and fierce, Stephanie is forced by financial circumstances into the risky profession of apprehension, or bounty hunting. The wit is sharp, the observations acute, the character and her relationships develop over the series. Plum ages well, like a good tequila.
Cassandra Reilly by Barbara Wilson.
Humour is another feature of this clever translator who odd-jobs as a private investigator is her wise-cracking wit and roving eye. Cassandra sticks in my mind as a powerful creation and a rare lesbian heroine in the genre. Like several other authors on this list, Wilson makes the most of her locations, which range from Barcelona to Venice to Transylvania. She really should be better known.
This is a personal list but I’d be keen to hear about other female sleuths I’ve not yet met. Any other smart, unconventional, thought-provoking recommendations warmly welcomed. Holidays are all about discovery.