Five Great Crime Novels by Female Authors
Despite the successes of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie remains for many the uncontested queen of crime fiction. While that reputation is well deserved there are plenty of talented women writing crime to take up the position should Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple ever fall out of favour.
Now, like any good crime novel, we’ve had our easy-going-and-apparently-unrelated preamble, so let’s get down to the gory details of the case itself…
Denise Mina: Still Midnight
Denise Mina has won a string of awards for what has come to be called “tartan noir” crime fiction. Those of you who’ve read enough crime fiction will know that this is a clue. From this clue, we may make one of two deductions.
Denise Mina has killed off all other crime writers without being caught and now continues to receive awards from judging panels too terrified to oppose her, or
- Denise Mina is a very strong writer indeed.
We’ll proceed under the premise that it is the latter, though if you have evidence of the former we would urge you to come forward.
Still Midnight is set in Glasgow and is the first of a series of books following policewoman Alex Morrow. Mina’s style surrounds the grim realities of the crime with the mundanity of everyday life.It’s a vaguely unsettling pairing that takes something as abstract as murder is for most of us and renders it oddly familiar. There’s something almost sad about the descriptions of the humdrum alongside the typical larger-than-life thriller fare.
At its core, the impression is one of real people wrapped up in events bigger than they are, entirely beyond their control, and always with that sense of uncomfortable juxtaposition. Plans go wrong, apparently simple actions are botched, and things seem to spiral from bad to worse.
Where a writer like Carl Hiaasen might play a series of errors for laughs, here it is feels more like a terrible certainty that whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
Winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016, The Glorious Heresies is a grimly comic tangle of sprawling sentences, sprinkled with exploratory subclauses. The pace is quick and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if you find yourself tearing through it like a hot knife through… well, human tissue, probably.
There’s a gleeful exuberance in its style that feels somehow at odds with the gravity of the crimes involved, but it’s a challenge not to love it when someone is described as having a “face like a bag of triangles.” The dialogue is delivered with a double-helping of wry wit and thick slang, extraordinary events reduced to practical observations in a way that seems simultaneously too light-hearted and too real.
McInerney’s characters frequently offer endearing commentary on their own situations, riddled with their own observations and turn of phrase. Where Still Midnight offers a juxtaposition of mundane detail and spectacle, here the two find a kind of uncomfortable synthesis. If you’re not used to the language, it takes a little while for it all to start making sense, but once you find your feet it’s a fantastic read.
Jill Dawson: The Crime Writer
Jill Dawson’s debut novel, The Crime Writer, is a something just a little different from the rest of the books recommended here. It’s a tricky book to classify, but probably sits closer to historical fiction than anything else. The Crime Writer is based on the life of American thriller writer Patricia Highsmith, but with a healthy dose of murder thrown in for good measure.
You’ll have to forgive our not being able to resist the metatextuality of a thriller about a female crime writer by another female crime writer. While Dawson is a strong writer in her own right, the book is helped along by the fact that Patricia Highsmith is a fascinating character before any murder is added to her life story.
Despite the introduction of a fictional crime, the book has an almost-true-to-life feel that makes it hard to put down, as well as admirably exploring many of the same themes as Highsmith’s own fiction in a kaleidoscope of art-imitating-life-imitating art.
Those of you who have already cultivated a taste for psychological thrillers may have read Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, or Ripley’s Game, but for anyone who hasn’t they’re strong bonus recommendations to add to the list.
Lori Rader-Day: Little Pretty Things
Winner of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award, Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things is a refreshing take on that old thriller staple of people-investigating-murders-in-which-they-are-the-prime-suspect.
Too often, protagonists who have somehow failed to achieve their life’s goals come off as more self-pitying than frank and candid. By contrast, Juliet Townsend comes across as someone who is honest and forthright about her situation, right down to knowing roughly where her ideal life went off the rails. It’s just a little too easy to see ourselves in her description of herself as someone who has fallen short of their own expectations, and so it's easy to sympathise with her from the outset.
It’s only once we’ve had a chance to get acquainted with Juliet that the crime itself unfolds. Where we so often get to see a genius detective think their way methodically through a case, here we see a career underachiever struggle through an investigation. The pacing is a little slow, but it’s an easy enough read that you’ll make your way through it at a fair clip.
Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Ahah, where would any good thriller be without a surprise twist ending? The last thing you were expecting to make the list of best non-Agatha Christie female-written crime fiction was an Agatha Christie novel, but we’re recommending this one with good cause.
Christie may well be the mother of modern crime fiction, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a book that punches above even her considerable weight. The whole story is related from the point of view of a disinterested third party, doctor James Sheppard, as he watches Poirot progress through his investigations. Over the course of the novel, Sheppard slowly takes on the role of assistant, helping Poirot in his investigation in the same way as Poirot’s friend Hastings usually does.
While it’s interesting to see the Belgian detective's actions described from another point of view, the real kick to this novel is its formal experimentation and the unadulterated joy with which it upends some of the typical expectations of the genre. Even now, decades on, it remains an excellent example of how to conform to genre expectations and still surprise your readers.