The 10 Best Female Detectives in Fiction Written by Women

Female Detectives

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by Keith Rice, 

There’s nothing like a good mystery novel when the need for a bit of page-turning escapism arises. Detective work is often (mistakenly) attributed to the old boy’s club; indeed, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, and of course Mr. Sherlock Holmes take up a fair chunk of pop-culture fiction real estate. These good and wily gentlemen, however, do have quite a bit of competition from their female counterparts. The mystery genre has long benefited from the solid woman’s footprint in the genre, both on the character side and the author side – and many of these female detectives are repeat investigators. The recurring sleuths below are just a few of our favorites.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton’s long-running Kinsey Millhone novels, also known as the “alphabet mysteries,” introduced mystery fans to Ms. Millhone, a hard-boiled private detective from fictional Santa Teresa, California, in 1982. With Grafton’s latest, Y Is for Yesterday, now available, there’s no better time to dive into Santa Teresa’s decidedly sordid criminal underworld.

Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs

Temperance Brennan is arguably best known from the hit Fox series, “Bones,” an adaptation of Kathy Reichs’s mystery series. At eighteen novels and counting, there’s certainly plenty of the literary life of Temperance Brennan to delve into. All the elements are there – edge-of-your-seat suspense, gruesome crime scenes, and plenty of bones.

Still Midnight by Denise Mina

Noir can be an interesting beast with all of its regional subgenres. In the case of Denise Mina and her world-weary Detective Inspector Alex Morrow, it just happens to be the Tartan Noir of Scotland. Much like its hard-boiled cousin in the Nordic countries, Tartan Noir is known for its bleak cynicism and oft-brutal crime. With Still Midnight, Morrow must contend with a bizarre murder/kidnapping, police force politics, and her own increasingly complicated personal life.

The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s premiere detective and the proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She also happens to be a particularly cunning and observant detective – and one of our personal favorites, so we’ve allowed for Alexander McCall Smith to be the one honorary male writer on this list. The delightful, bestselling series will see its eighteenth book released in early November – but you can dive in anyplace in the series. And while a bit less hard-boiled than some others on this list, Precious is certainly among the most engaging.

Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum, a detective somewhere on a spectrum that runs from Nancy Drew to Dirty Harry, is the occasionally hapless, always resourceful bounty hunter at the center of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum seriesLooking for a way to make ends meet, Plum, a former lingerie buyer, once blackmailed her way into a bounty hunting job as part of her cousin’s bail bond business. Myriad hijinks have since ensued.

O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King

With her sleuth Mary Russell, Laurie R. King has created one of the most intriguing detectives on this list. After a chance encounter with a semi-retired Sherlock Holmes, Russell found herself as the master detective’s protégé and eventually his wife. In their first adventure, with Russell still serving as Holmes’s apprentice, the duo find themselves navigating a labyrinthine mystery and a rash of murders against the rising tensions of British-occupied Palestine.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Who doesn’t like a good, wise-cracking, hardboiled detective whose past is a bit of a mystery? In the case of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt, that’s exactly what you get. Employing some unorthodox techniques – and by unorthodox we mean lucid dreaming and drug-induced visions – DeWitt is one of the more interesting detectives on this list. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead sees the natural-born sleuth unraveling a mystery in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson

This is an entry in another regional noir subgenres – Nordic Noir. It’s a genre well-known for its dense plotting, brutal crimes, tortured protagonists, and bleak themes. Asa Larsson’s Sun Storm is no different and attorney Rebecka Martinsson is as tortured as they come. In this latest installment in the series, Martinsson returns to the hometown she left in disgrace to confront her own dark past amid a series of vicious murders.

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwall is arguably one of contemporary crime fiction’s most influential writers. Her first novel, 1990’s Postmortem, introduced us to her longtime protagonist, medical examiner and forensic specialist Dr. Kay Scarpetta. Postmortem also garnered Cornwell a host of awards including an Edgar, and the author’s detail-heavy thrillers paved the way for TV series like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” In the novel that started it all, Scarpetta is drawn into the hunt for a particularly savvy serial killer.

Killer Look by Linda Fairstein

Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper seems to have a knack for landing in the middle of particularly perilous situations. In Killer Look, the most recent in Linda Fairstein’s Alexandra Cooper series, the seasoned D.A. is pulled into the investigation of an apparent suicide against the backdrop of the flashy New York fashion scene. With her job  in jeopardy and her own PTSD on the verge of overtaking her, Killer Look could hold in its pages Cooper’s most dangerous case yet.

 

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Forget Jack-o’-Lanterns and Candy Corn, October is National Book Month!

Nat Book Month

Robert Adrian Hillman /Photo © Shutterstock

Oh man. This is tailor-made for libraries. Well… it’s tailor-made for books anyway, which we are all about. And all we have to do to show our support is exactly what we always do!

Which is to say, provide people with access to tens of thousands of books and encourage and enable those same people to read those same books. It’s perfect!

What can you do to show your appreciation for the dominant means of storing, transporting and spreading knowledge and understanding on Earth for the last 1,700 years or so (before books it was all scrolls and wax and rocks)?

Take time out from planning your costume parties and hanging fake cobwebs and stop by the library. Check out that old favorite, or that new book you’ve been meaning to read, or, if all else fails, ask a librarian to suggest something for you (if you plan it ahead of time you can fill out a Library Concierge form and have a list of five personally tailored recommendations waiting for you). Welcome to October and happy reading.

They Make it in the End: 5 Fictional Tales of Sweet, Satisfying Escape

Because, sometimes, you need to know before you start. Spoilers be darned.

Escape

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Women and girls held captive by monstrous men is a theme returned to by writers again and again, perhaps because it is echoed in real-life headlines. In these books, at least, the captives ultimately free themselves, and their captors get their comeuppance, whether at the hands of the authorities, or, even more satisfying, the hands of their victims. For stories of abuse and escape, check out these novels and memoirs.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Fourteen-year-old Turtle eats raw eggs for breakfast, is handy with a gun and knife, and has the sort of wilderness survival skills that could win her her own reality TV show. She also has a paranoid, sexually and emotionally abusive father who, despite letting Turtle attend school and socialize (a bit) with other kids, has all but made her his hostage since her mother died when she was six. In Gabriel Tallent’s new novel, My Absolute Darling, Turtle’s existence is just tolerable enough that she doesn’t even question it – until she meets (and rescues) a boy, with whom she falls in love. The question then is how Turtle can rescue herself.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor is sweet, scary-smart, funny, and voluptuous – assets which do not escape the malign eye of her mother’s creepy boyfriend. In this tender and bittersweet novel Eleanor tries to navigate the pangs of first love while hiding the truth of what’s going on at home from the new boy in her life. Ultimately, Eleanor has to decide at what price she can fight for her freedom to feel safe in her own home, and Park comes to understand that truly loving someone sometimes means letting them go.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Told cleverly from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, this ingenious novel asks the question: what if your entire world consisted of a small, windowless room? What would you do to escape? And what would you think of the real world once you got out? Jack’s mother suffers abuse at the hands of her kidnapper, who is Jack’s father, for years, but when he comes after Jack, she makes a bold plan to win their freedom. Life outside their room is far more exciting, colorful, and confusing than anything Jack has known, and in the end he, and his mother, come to a new understanding of the meaning of home.

The Never List by Koethi Zan

Spookily similar to the real-life case of the three women held captive by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, this novel traces the life-altering consequences of two teenager friends’ bad decision to accept a ride from the wrong person. The girls are taken captive and held in a basement for years before one finally manages to escape, while the other doesn’t make it out. Ten years later, the survivor is living under a new name, but with old guilt and shame about what happened, why she lived, and why her friend was left behind.

My Abandonment by Peter Rock

This novel offers the same premise as My Absolute Darling – a father and daughter living mostly by their wits in semi-isolation. But in Rock’s novel, which was based on a true story, the father is far less malevolent, and the duo lives apparently contentedly until they are discovered one day and their world is torn apart. Soon, though, questions arise as to just how well cared for the daughter actually was, and if the man she’s called her father is actually related to her at all. Rock is more concerned with questions about wilderness and civilization, and what constitutes a good, or at least wholesome, life, than scary stories about bad men in the woods, but his novel is haunting nonetheless.

 

Books to Film – October Releases

The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin

The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us filmMovie: The Mountain Between Us
When it comes out: October 6
What the book is about: On a stormy winter night, two strangers wait for a flight at the Salt Lake City airport. Ashley Knox is an attractive, successful writer, who is flying East for her much anticipated wedding. Dr. Ben Payne has just wrapped up a medical conference and is also eager to get back East for a slate of surgeries he has scheduled for the following day. When the last outgoing flight is cancelled due to a broken de-icer and a forthcoming storm, Ben finds a charter plane that can take him around the storm and drop him in Denver to catch a connection. And when the pilot says the single engine prop plane can fit one more, if barely, Ben offers the seat to Ashley knowing that she needs to get back just as urgently. And then the unthinkable happens. The pilot has a heart attack mid-flight and the plane crashes into the High Uintas Wilderness– one of the largest stretches of harsh and remote land in the United States.

So B. It by Sarah Weeks

So b itSo B It filmMovie: So B. It
When it comes out: October 6
What the book is about: She doesn’t know when her birthday is or who her father is. In fact, everything about Heidi and her mentally disabled mother’s past is a mystery. When a strange word in her mother’s vocabulary begins to haunt her, Heidi sets out on a cross-country journey in search of the secrets of her past. Far away from home, pieces of her puzzling history come together. But it isn’t until she learns to accept not knowing that Heidi truly arrives.

The Chinaman by Stephen Leather

The ChinamanThe Foreigner filmMovie: The Foreigner
When it comes out: October 13
What the book is about: Jungle-skilled, silent and lethal, he had killed for the Viet Cong and then for the Americans. Now all that was behind him. Quiet, hard-working and unassuming, he was building up his South London take-away business. Until the day his wife and youngest daughter were destroyed by an IRA bomb in a Knightsbridge department store. Then, simply but persistently, he began to ask the authorities who were the men responsible, what was being done. And was turned away, fobbed off, treated as a nuisance. Which was when the Chinaman, denied justice, decided on revenge. And went back to war.

Crystal Clear by Eric Le Marque

Crystal Clear6 Below filmMovie: 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain
When it comes out: October 13
What the book is about: In this gripping first-person account, former Olympian Eric LeMarque recounts a harrowing tale of survival—of eight days in the frozen wilderness, of losing his legs to frostbite, and coming face-to-face with death. But Eric’s ordeal on the mountain was only part of his struggle for survival—as he reveals, with startling candor, an even more harrowing and inspiring tale of fame and addiction, healing and triumph.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The SnowmanThe Snowman filmMovie: The Snowman
When it comes out: October 20
What the book is about: Antihero police investigator, Harry Hole, is back: in a bone-chilling thriller that will take Hole to the brink of insanity. Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf. Hole suspects a link between a menacing letter he’s received and the disappearance of Jonas’s mother—and of perhaps a dozen other women, all of whom went missing on the day of a first snowfall. As his investigation deepens, something else emerges: he is becoming a pawn in an increasingly terrifying game whose rules are devised—and constantly revised—by the killer.

Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall

Same Kind of Different as MeSame Kind of Different as Me filmMovie: Same Kind of Different as Me
When it comes out: October 20
What the book is about: Meet Denver, a man raised under plantation-style slavery in Louisiana in the 1960s; a man who escaped, hopping a train to wander, homeless, for eighteen years on the streets of Dallas, Texas. No longer a slave, Denver’s life was still hopeless—until God moved. First came a godly woman who prayed, listened, and obeyed. And then came her husband, Ron, an international arts dealer at home in a world of Armani-suited millionaires. And then they all came together. But slavery takes many forms. Deborah discovers that she has cancer. In the face of possible death, she charges her husband to rescue Denver. Who will be saved, and who will be lost? What is the future for these unlikely three? What is God doing? Same Kind of Different As Me is the emotional tale of their story: a telling of pain and laughter, doubt and tears, dug out between the bondages of this earth and the free possibility of heaven. No reader or listener will ever forget it.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

WonderstruckWonderstruck filmMovie: Wonderstruck
When it comes out: October 20
What the book is about: Ben and Rose secretly wish for better lives. Ben longs for his unknown father. Rose scrapbooks a famous silent actress. When Ben finds clues and Rose reads enticing news, the children independently run to New York for what they are missing. Ben’s story in words, Rose’s in pictures, come together in deafness.

Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg

JungleJungle filmMovie: Jungle
When it comes out: October 20
What the book is about: What begins as a dream adventure for four amicable, if hastily met, muchileros (backpackers) quickly becomes a struggle for survival as they unravel under the duress of the jungle. They are an odd mix to be sure: Marcus, the Swiss mystic; Karl, the shady Austrian geologist; Kevin, the well-intentioned American photographer; and Yossi, the Israeli adventurer. “Jungle” is the incredible true story of Yossi Ghinsberg’s triumph over the most adverse and frightening of circumstances. It is a tale of survival and human fortitude against the wildest backdrop on the planet.

1922 (Full Dark, No Stars) by Stephen King

19221922 filmMovie: 1922
When it comes out: October 20
What the book is about: 1922 is a novella by Stephen King, published in his collection Full Dark, No Stars. The story opens with the confession of Wilfred James to the murder of his wife, Arlette, following their move to Hemingford, Nebraska onto land willed to Arlette by her father.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel

Thank You for Your ServiceThank You for Your Service filmMovie: Thank You for Your Service
When it comes out: October 27
What the book is about:  In the ironically titled Thank You for Your Service, Finkel writes with tremendous compassion not just about the soldiers but about their wives and children. Where do soldiers belong after their homecoming? Is it reasonable, or even possible, to expect them to rejoin their communities as if nothing has happened? And in moments of hardship, who can soldiers turn to if they feel alienated by the world they once lived in? These are the questions Finkel faces as he revisits the brave but shaken men of the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion.

Where to Start: The 7 Must-Read Sherlock Holmes Stories

Sherlock Statue

Sherlock Holmes statue in London, England/Photo © Shutterstock

“Elementary,” “Sherlock,” “House,” “Sherlock Holmes”: These are just some of the more obvious adaptations of the great series of work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made in recent years. If you are a fan of any one of these, or if you are simply looking to dive into classic literature that has shaped detective-storytelling for decades, here is a cheat sheet for the must-read stories from Doyle’s fantastic collection of works.

1. A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet
If you want to acquaint yourself with Sherlock Holmes and his partner-in-crime-solving, Dr. John Watson, you should really start at the beginning. Doyle’s characters are still taking shape in this first tale, but it’s truly essential to set up the rest of the stories. In it, we learn how the pair came to meet and work together, and are introduced to Sherlock’s idiosyncratic and ingenious ways.

2. The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four
Also a good place to start, “The Sign of Four” explains how Watson came to be married: a key point in the relationship between the two men. Watson as the domesticated man is a stark contrast to Holmes’s independent and disconnected nature, and is often depicted in – and at the core of – various adaptations of Doyle’s work.

3. The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

A Scandal in Bohemia
The first story in the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this may not be Doyle’s longest tale, but it has left quite a lasting impression as the only piece to reference “The Woman” Irene Adler. Doyle’s stories frequently refer to “women’s intuition” and many of his female characters are perceived as quite clever (if not, perhaps, untrustworthy), but only Adler has gone on to be repeatedly portrayed in television and films as one of the people held highest in Holmes’s esteem. For anyone interested in the character’s origins, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is essential.

Other stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes worth noting are: The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Man With the Twisted Lip, The Speckled Band, and The Copper Beeches.

4. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Final Problem
Brought to the reader in the final story of the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, James Moriarty is considered to be the arch-nemesis of detective hero Sherlock Holmes. He is described by Holmes as the “Napoleon of crime” and the only man to match him in wit. Simply put, no list of Holmes must-reads would be complete without the tight but significant story of their battle at the falls of Reichenbach.

Other stories from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to consider adding to your list are The Gloria Scott, The Greek Interpreter, and The Naval Treaty.

5. The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Written after The Final Problem but set before, The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably Doyle’s most famous Holmes adventure and therefore should not be missed. Rather than a short, Hound is a longer novel like A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four and an enjoyable romp of a mystery that stands alone better than any other Holmes work.

6. The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Empty House
For reasons that shall not be spoiled for newbies, Watson goes several years without documenting Holmes’s cases. The two are finally reunited in this first story of the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. You will be delighted by Watson’s joyful reaction to his friend’s reappearance, and this short will lead you directly into a new series of adventures for the pair including The Dancing Men and The Three Students.

7. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

The Three Garridebs
In the final collection of short Holmes stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, lies a small narrative called The Three Garridebs. The case itself is not necessarily the most fascinating of Doyle’s work, but it is in this particular story, when Watson is suddenly injured, that Sherlock’s true affection for his only friend is revealed. It is a lovely note on which to end such a wonderful anthology of works, as it is really where the stories began: a surprising, and perfect, friendship. And that is why the small tale should find its way to your must-reads.

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There are a great deal more Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson stories beyond what we’ve featured on this list, and all are worth exploring. These choice titles, however, should not be skipped and will offer the perfect introduction to Doyle’s sharp and highly revered world. If you’re a smart reader looking for something classic but fun, the decision to start these delightful tales should be rather, well, elementary.

Genre Friday – Hobbit Day Tribute Edition

Baggins BDay

Welcome to the house that Tolkien built. Epic Fantasy (also known as High Fantasy) is the quintessential fantasy sub-genre, the fount from which all other fantasy sub-genres have flowed, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves and orcs and rings (oh my) utterly dominate the field. There are, of course, stand-outs and outliers, stories that forge news paths in an old sub-genre, but even when a tale isn’t filled with staff wielding wizards and subterranean, master-craftsmen called dwarfs anything called epic fantasy still contains a few essential elements that were originally established when Tolkien first fleshed out Middle-earth on paper.

Epic fantasies create entire worlds, with long and complex histories and vivid cultures and lifestyles. How complex and vivid? Tolkien actually created (or adapted) a historic timeline leading back to the creation of the world, myths, legends, deities, several races of creatures (many of which have become staples of the fantasy genre), multiple kingdoms, and an entire language for the fictional inhabitants of his world! If you look hard enough in the right places I bet it wouldn’t take too much effort to find someone that speaks at least passing Elvish. They are not all that in depth, but that is the kind of detail you are potentially looking at when you jump into an epic fantasy.

In case that isn’t enough to wrap your head around, epic fantasy also almost always has a large cast of characters taking part in quests and adventures that will affect the fate of an entire kingdom or world. Possibly multiple worlds.

So, it is a complex workout for your imagination and memory. What else?

MiddleEarth

While hand-drawn maps of the world are not strictly mandatory, they are strongly encouraged. 

It’s big. Aside from its often immense geographic scope, as it is not unusual for the cast of characters to have to trek across continents and cross oceans in the pursuit of their goal, these stories can also cover large spans of time, with years, decades or even generations passing by in the course of the story (or series of stories). They are also big in another way – these are not typically short books. Once you get sucked into an epic fantasy series you are in it for the long haul.

 

Examples:

Sheepfarmer's DaughterThe Belgariad series by David Eddings

The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

The Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks

The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan