10 Great Fictional Detectives who aren’t Sherlock Holmes—and aren’t Male
Ask the average reader to name his or her favorite female literary sleuth and you’re likely to hear Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Nancy Drew. At least, that’s what I found out in my admittedly unscientific survey recently. However, some of the best mysteries out there today have women on the case.
Female detectives bring a new twist to the traditional mystery tropes. Since they don’t have their male counterparts’ physical strength or ability to use their size to intimidate, women are, by necessity, more creative and thoughtful. Their stories are as much about the character as the crime. So whether you like your fictional sleuth to be a police officer, a private investigator, or a nosy amateur, check out this list of ten great fictional female detectives.
Mary Russell (Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series; author Laurie King)
Mary Russell first meets her (much older) future husband when she’s just a teenager. Sherlock Holmes is retired from sleuthing, living a quiet life devoted to studying bees. The Great Detective and the awkward young woman are kindred souls and he (albeit reluctantly) takes her on as his protégé and eventually his wife.
Start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King.
Deborah Knott (The Deborah Knott series; author Margaret Maron)
The first book in this series, The Bootlegger’s Daughter, is one of my favorite books. It introduces lawyer Deborah Knott, daughter of Colleton County bootlegger Kezzie Knott, and her large and loving family. It won the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for Best Novel, all well deserved. Long Upon the Land is the last in the series, according to Maron. I’m still hoping she’ll change her mind.
Start with The Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron.
Blanche White (Blanche White series; author Barbara Neely)
This award-winning series—the first book, Blanche on the Lam, won the Agatha, the Anthony, and the Macavity for Best First Novel—debuted back in 1992. Set in the fictional town of Farley, North Carolina, Blanche is an African-American housekeeper, and the battle with racism is threaded through the stories. Sadly, there are only four books in the series.
Start with Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.
Lydia Chin (Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Mystery series; author SJ Rozan)
Rozan’s PI series features Lydia Chin and her cynical older partner, Bill Smith, and alternates point of view between the two characters. Chinese-American Lydia is an engaging character, and Rozan writes beautifully crafted mysteries.
Start with China Trade by SJ Rozan.
Amelia Peabody (Amelia Peabody series; author Elizabeth Peters)
Amelia Peabody is a British anthropologist and amateur sleuth. The books are set primarily in Egypt during the late 19th century. The series blends mystery, romance, and humor and pokes gentle fun at those over-the-top, Victorian-era adventure novels. These books were a favorite of my British mother.
Start with Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters.
Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Mystery series; author Jacqueline Winspear)
Set in London, just after the First World War, this series features Maisie Dobbs, a nurse turned psychologist and detective. Maisie is a smart and resourceful character, and Winspear is a master at recreating London in the early part of the 20th century.
Start with Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear.
Kinsey Milhone (Kinsey Milhone Novels; author Sue Grafton)
D is for Deadbeat was the first book I read in this consistently excellent series. My local bookstore inexplicably didn’t have A, B, or C. Luckily, I found those first three at the library and I’ve been hooked ever since. PI Kinsey Milhone lives in a converted garage, is twice divorced, and eats a lot of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. She’s stubborn, smart, and tougher than you’d expect. Grafton keeps her books set in the ’80s—no cell phone and other 21st century tech. What is expected to be the last book in the series, Z is for Zero, is slated for 2019. Grafton has inspired more writers than I can count, myself included.
Start with A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton.
VI Warshawski (VI Warshawski Novels; author Sara Paretsky)
Victoria Iphigenia “Vic” Warshawski is a private investigator in Chicago who specializes in white-collar crime but still seems to get tied up in murder. Her cases often involve someone close to her, and she has a soft spot for anyone she sees as the underdog. She’s snarky, quick-tempered, and reluctant to rely on anyone. Daughter of a police officer, Vic was a public defender before becoming a PI.
Start with Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky.
Lady Georgie (Royal Spyness Mystery series; author Rhys Bowen).
Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch, is 34th in line for the British throne and poor as the proverbial church mouse. Her skills include the perfect curtsey and little else. Bowen is a master at evoking London of the 1930s and the books are just plain fun.
(I also have an excellent curtsey; something my mother insisted was a necessary life skill.)
Start with Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen.
Trixie Belden (The Trixie Belden series; author Julie Campbell/Kathryn Kenny)
Many women mystery writers cite Nancy Drew as an early influence, but for me it was Trixie Belden. Trixie lived at Crabapple Farm with her parents and three brothers. Along with her friend Honey Wheeler, Trixie was able to solve crimes that baffled adults. She was very much a tomboy, which appealed to me since I was one as well and she felt more like a real person to me—Trixie had chores and annoying brothers, among other things.
Start with The Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campell (look for the original text from the 1940s).