No, not Cagney and Lacey, although they remain a very popular team from television. Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt (ret. Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen series), also a lawyer and former Minister of Justice, credits the duo with stirring her to write crime fiction, and gives a nod to Lynda LaPlante’s Jane Tennison for her gritty character, too. She says these women were all ” . . . tough, driven, and damn good” at their jobs.
Yet female detectives represent only approximately 26% of characters in crime fiction, according to a recent survey. That’s actually lower than I would have thought, as both of my prime protagonists in two series are women, Trudy Genova and Nora Tierney.
Yet women remain popular as lead characters—just look at Nancy Drew—despite many of these characters having to deal with entrenched male hierarchies, especially if they are within a police system. In my humble opinion, the sensitivity and empathy to victims that women bring to their investigations, whether an amateur sleuth or a professional detective, enhances their need to see justice done. Women are determined and resourceful, too.
So who are my personal favorites in crime fiction? Too numerous to count I see, as I look over my shelves of whose books grace them. I’ll likely leave out many I love, but here are that ones that pop out as I run my eye over my library:
Ann Cleeves’ DCI Vera Stanhope is mistaken for a bag lady in her first outing (The Crow Trap) and has gone on to remain a stable in the long-running series. Played on television by Brenda Blethyn, Cleeves has said the actor is the embodiment of the detective who suffers no fools and solves crime in Northumberland wearing her rumpled raincoat and trademark hat.
Miss Marple stands out, and I suspect features on many crime writers’ lists, appearing in 12 of Christie’s novels. The kindly spinster who seems totally unassuming, yet misses nothing, has a mind like a steel trap that makes connections of human nature. Joan Hickson remains my favorite Jane Marple on television.
Barbara Havers is on my list, too, from Elizabeth George’s long-running Inspector Lynley series, the endearing misfit who is badly dressed but see things others miss, and whose working-class background is a great contrast to the handsome and worldly Lord Lynley. She can’t help constantly rubbing against authority, and was ably played in the TV series by actress Sharon Small.
The character Josephine Tey of Nicola Upson’s historical series is based on Elizabeth McKinnon’s real life, but this Tey finds herself embroiled in crimes while navigating her own stormy home life. Elly Griffith’s archeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway is another favorite, her voice at once self-deprecating with a wry humor, but a mind like no other, as she assists in more ways than one as DCI Nelson solves crimes.
James Oswald’s DC Constance Fairchild is another gal whose brain serves her well, as does Jane Casey’s DS Maeve Kerrigan, and I can’t leave out Aline Templeton’s DI Marjorie Fleming, married to a sheep farmer who keeps her grounded.
Of course, in addition to her standalone, Val McDermid has her own stable of female detectives, writing strong women over five series: Carol Jordan, Kate Brannigan, Lindsay Graham, Karen Pirie, and the newest, reporter Allie Burns.
I’ll end with the Skelf women of Doug Johnstone’s remarkable series, three women in one family who run a funeral home and private eye agency. These books are so original and so heartwarming yet darkly funny, based around the women, their lives, and their cases. If you haven’t found Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah yet, you’re in for a treat.
Readers: who are some of your favorite women sleuths?