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Lady Dicks: Six Great Crime Novels with Female Detectives

Detective novels, and the crime genre as a whole, tends to follow some very specific rules and structures. Too often, these typical structures see any women in the story relegated to the role of the damsel-in-distress, the femme-fatale, or the victim.

It’s all too easy to live in a world in which the “classic” detectives are Sherlock Holmes, Auguste Dupin, Father Brown, and Sam Spade, but to do so ignores the rich history of excellent female detectives in literature. Doubtless many of you are already thinking of classics like Miss Marple, Kay Scarpetta, and Nancy Drew, but there’s a world of female crime-fighters out there to choose from.

With that in mind we’ve put together this list of six amazing crime novels with the best female detectives. Before we get into it, we’re considering “private investigators” and “meddling casual crime-solvers” as types in the broader category of “detectives.”

So if you’re interested in reading more books about women unravelling criminal plots, read on... because we’ve got our best girls on the case.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first book in Alexander McCall Smith’s series about a detective agency in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. For those of us who are looking for something different in a detective novel, it’s hard to argue with the book’s twist on the typical detective agency’s setup as well as it's excellent setting.

The book’s main character is Precious (or Mma) Ramotswe, who is introduced to the reader as “the only lady private detective in Botswana.” She’s a sagacious detective with a keen eye and a strong sense of her surroundings, “a good woman in a good country.” The book itself is less of a single narrative than it is a series of smaller episodes that fit neatly together. This means that the reader has ample opportunity to see how Ramotswe approaches different cases, which is a huge part of the fun of any detective story.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduces readers to a world in which events unfold at their own pace. There is seldom a sense of terrible urgency. The pace sometimes seems almost languid, though never plodding. Its language is direct and to the point, and the combination is charming.

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Maisie Dobbs

For those looking for something more in the vein of a historical mystery novel, without necessarily harkening back to the golden age of detective fiction, Maisie Dobbs is just about perfect for scratching that old-fashioned-crime itch. Set in early 20th century London, Maisie Dobbs tells the story of how a 13-year-old Maisie came to be apprenticed to a detective called Maurice Blanche, and what she does with that education.

For the most part, the mystery unfolds after the war, with Maisie working as a private investigator. She fits a lot of the best detective archetypes, being both observant and a little wry in her descriptions of characters and events. This combines well with the setting, which works well in conjuring a sense of a historical London somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and film noir. There’s also a lot to be said for the just-starting-out charm of Maisie’s business as a private investigator; it feels as if there’s room to grow, which is important when you know you’re starting a series.

For what it’s worth, it also has some serious pedigree, having received the 2003 Agatha Christie award for Best First Novel.

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The Bigger They Come

Written by classic detective novel author Erle Stanley Gardner (though under the name A. A. Fair) in 1939, The Bigger They Come is the first of a series of novels about Bertha Cool. As you might expect from the man who created Perry Mason, there’s a lot of classic detective novel feel to this one, with the exactly the kind of characters and language you’d expect for the time.

The detective of the book is Bertha Cool, a widowed woman in her sixties who established a private investigation agency in the wake of her husband’s murder. We are introduced to her through the eyes of Donald Lam, who describes her as a woman in her sixties, with grey hair, grey eyes, and “a benign, grandmotherly expression on her face.” The grilling that Lam soon receives at her hands upsets that description a little, and that’s about par for the course throughout. It’s a book that communicates a sense of wit and pace in its dialogue that’s hard not to fall in love with.

The relationship between Cool and Lam is at the core of the series, and part of the joy of it is that the two both support and antagonise one another so well.

The Ice Princess

In this day and age, it seems that no list of detective novels can possibly be complete without at least one Scandinavian entry. In this case, our choice is Swedish author Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess. While there is a male detective on the scene, Patrik Hedström, the focus is on the character of Erica Falck, who has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka to wind up her parents affairs after their deaths.

It’s only once she’s there that Falck gets swept up in the investigation into the death of a childhood friend. Obviously, there’s an element of the perhaps-too-coincidental about the setup, but these are things the seasoned reader of detective novels learns to ignore (unless, of course, we assume that Jessica Fletcher is the murderer in every case, artfully covering her tracks). There’s also plenty of romance, the one thing notably missing from so many detective novels.

Full warning, when I first read this it was only a trilogy, but I've just been informed that the series is now up to nine books... If you're one of those readers who needs to chase a full series, this one should last you a while.

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The Invisible Guardian

While the current crop of crime fiction might lead you to believe that murder only happens in Scandinavia, there are plenty of murders further afield. Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian is set in the Basque country and follows the investigation into a series of killings, beginning with the discovery of a young woman’s body by a rural riverbank. The body has been arranged with the kind of morbid attention to detail that demands the intervention of a great detective.

This time, our fearless lead is Inspector Amaia Salazar, an insomniac investigator based in Pamplona who must travel out to the rural town of Elizondo to crack the case. Of course, things wouldn’t be complete if there weren’t an extra layer to the investigation, and in this case it’s the revelation that Salazar spent her formative years in Elizondo.

The narrative is steeped in superstition and local myth, which deepens the sense of discomfort that is so often core to the a good detective story. It also meshes well with the depiction of the village of Elizondo itself, which feels well realised.

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The Falls

This one might be a little contentious, so you’ll have to bear with us a bit. Ian Rankin is well known for his series of novels starring Detective Inspector John Rebus, but in the fifth book of the Rebus series we're introduced to the character of Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. By comparison with Rebus, Clarke is a by-the-books investigator who relies less on the leaps of deductive reasoning that characterise Rebus’ investigations.

While it might seem strange to recommend something so deep into a series, The Falls is one of the first books in which we see Clarke edging toward centre stage. It’s something that had been a long time coming, and fits very well into the broader theme of a great detective who has been ageing over the course of the series. It’s a genuinely interesting scenario to watch unfold, as we have the chance to see the great detective’s protege grow into her role as a detective. In a series as long as this, it’s nice to see that the genius detective’s partner isn’t permanently relegated to the role of Watson and has a chance to take centre stage.

It’s a long series, but that sense of development is what makes it all worthwhile.

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Obviously, this is nothing like a comprehensive list, but they are a few favourites. Suffice it to say that anyone who's invested in their detective stories could probably recommend another couple of great female investigators. 

If you feel there’s a clue we’ve overlooked, please drop us a line in the comments. We’ll follow up with another investigation and (hopefully) add them to our list of suspects.

American actress, author, fashion designer, dancer, producer, and singer. Became interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.

2 Comments

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Lionel Prune
I have never been more delighted to find out I was so wrong about something! Thanks for the heads-up! I've corrected the recommendation... and now it looks like I have some more books to chase down myself!

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