Top Ten Female Detectives
Decades ago, in an address to the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom, renowned novelist P.D. James theorized that the roots of detective fiction run all the way back to Austen herself. In short, James believed that long before hard-boiled private eyes ever set foot in San Francisco, or Wilkie Collins ever daydreamed about The Woman in White, a spinster penned the first detective novel in her Regency-era sitting room. Published in 1815, that novel was Emma. Emma, James contended, includes many elements foundational to the 20th- and 21st-century detective fiction we know and love today. Emma also features a strong female protagonist, and if you take P.D. James’s view of things, that protagonist is the first detective to ever appear in print. Consequently, whether you prefer your detective fiction with gumshoes, spying spinsters, nosey parkers, amateur sleuths, or professional investigators of any gender, we might all owe a debt to Austen.
As a reader, I know I do. As a writer, I owe many others. To that end, here is my list of the Top Ten Detective Novels that paved the way for strong female protagonists in detective fiction:
- “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
At a time when a female detective would’ve been unthinkable to many readers, Irene Adler becomes more than an antagonist. She’s allowed to match wits with the great Sherlock Holmes. To him, she’s “the woman.” She achieves a respect that Moriarty never can, in Holmes’s eyes and in the public’s. Thanks to Irene Adler, the strong female protagonist is on her way.
- The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908)
Rachel, the persnickety protagonist of The Circular Staircase, isn’t a professional detective, although she opens the door for future female investigators. This novel not only sparked the “had I but known” device, it was a bestseller in its day, making women sleuths acceptable.
- The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)
With the world in love with Hercule Poirot, Christie turned her attention to a novel about Jazz Age babies who form a detective agency and fall in love. Tommy and Tuppence are equal partners in their endeavor. Tuppence, bright, sparkling, and rather rash, is the opposite of steady, stalwart Tommy. Still, they’re perfect for each other. It isn’t until 1930 that we see Christie explore the idea of the strong female protagonist to even greater effect with Miss Marple in Murder at the Vicarage, but the notion begins with Tuppence.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
Of all the protagonists of the Golden Age of mystery fiction, Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, would rank high on any list. For my money, however, it’s his accomplice, Harriet Vane, who’s the game changer. In returning to the women-only world of her college at Oxford, Harriet is on her own, trying to solve a series of frightening crimes. But it’s also Harriet’s incredible deductive insight into Lord Peter while punting on the river—and the resulting insight into her own nature—that makes this novel extraordinary. After Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane isn’t just somebody’s sidekick. She’s a capable investigator in her own right, and as such, she paved the way for a long line of strong female protagonists to come.
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
Vivian Sternwood may be Philip Marlowe’s closest ally as he unravels the dark truths behind a tangle of crimes. But she’s an ally only to a point. Without crossing the line to become a typical femme fatale, she’s as hard-boiled as the men in this novel, and in that role, she brings the possibility of the strong female protagonist into the American detective fiction tradition.
- Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky (1982)
From the get-go, V.I. Warshawski stands toe-to-toe with the tough guys in this 1982 novel. However, she does it her way. Come what may, she holds on to her own definition of both feminism and femininity. With such certainty about who she is and what she can do, she is the essence of the strong female protagonist.
- A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton (1982)
After reading A Is for Alibi, a friend said to me, “Wow, I didn’t realize the protagonist was a woman until page nine.” To my mind, that proves Kinsey Milhone changed the way we think of detective novels—and the way we think of female protagonists. The novel, however, isn’t about a female seeking the truth. It’s about a human being who happens to be female seeking the truth, and it altered detective fiction forever.
- Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell (1990)
With Kay Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell made way for a professional investigator of another kind. As a medical examiner, she’s an able expert in a rarefied field, and as such, Scarpetta changed the face of detective fiction. Because of Scarpetta, the genre will never be the same.
- Blue Genes by Val McDermid (1996)
In this Kate Brannigan P.I. novel, McDermid takes topics often labeled as “women’s issues,” builds a complex mystery around them, and blows the doors off the barn. The result is a strong female protagonist who isn’t solving an ordinary whodunit. Kate is a woman seeking justice for women everywhere, and she takes detective fiction in a fresh direction.
- The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen (2001)
Enter Dr. Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli. Together, with Isles’s specialized skills and Rizzoli’s straightforward investigative style, they turn detective fiction’s past partnership paradigm on its head. Rather than Holmes and Watson, or even Tommy and Tuppence, Gerritsen teams two strong female protagonists, and the genre is stronger for it.
AUTHOR BIO: Nichole Christoff is the award-winning author of three Jamie Sinclair thrillers: The Kill List, The Kill Shot, and The Kill Box. A writer, broadcaster, and military spouse who has worked on the air and behind the scenes for radio, television news, and the public relations industry, Christoff is a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime and the Jane Austen Society of North America. She also belongs to Private Eye Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and three of RWA’s local chapters, in which she’s served as an officer and a member of the board.