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My top 5 female detectives in fiction


When trying to decide upon my favourite of all fictional detectives I was struck by the realisation that, after the most obvious candidates, there are actually fewer female ‘lead’ detectives in mystery fiction than I had at first imagined. Of course, we all think of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and perhaps Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym- who are both classic creations that withstand the test of time. However, my other favourite women sleuths tend to have originated on the small screen; such as Sarah Lund and Jane Tennison- although they remain masterfully penned personalities nonetheless. I also then considered some of my favourite detective writers and their characters. For example, P.D James and Ruth Rendell, who have both certainly created strong female sleuths in their many books are yet best known for their male leads- Adam Dalgleish and Chief Inspector Wexford. I must admit myself that I prefer the Dalgleish novels to those that feature Cordelia Gray, for instance. So this article was more of a challenge to write than I had at first thought, particularly when one considers that the traits we would traditionally apply to female characters seem to fit very well with the role of investigator. For example, we expect our fictional women to be intuitive and interested in people and what makes them tick. Yet male detectives still dominate the genre and even the great female mystery solvers- as you will note in my list below- operate as a ‘side-kick’ to a man. I have tried in my novels to make my female lead (Imogen Croft) the chief character in the book, although her husband does work alongside her and they solve cases as a team. But perhaps I have been influenced by my favourite lady detectives a little too much and have not been bold enough to allow Imogen to sleuth on her own- without a male counterpart. However, I do like the interplay between a husband and wife team of investigators and I enjoy the relationship that this creates (see numbers 3 and 5 of my list). In the end, your all time favourite lady detective is a very personal decision, but here is my top five- feel free to heartily disagree!

1. Jane Marple. (created by Dame Agatha Christie)
An amateur sleuth who needs little introduction. A completely unassuming old lady who possesses razer sharp intelligence. These mysteries are set predominantly in post-war Britain and Marple draws on her experience of the microcosm of human behaviour that she observes in the village of St Mary Mead to solve murder cases that have the police baffled. A creation of pure genius.
2. Nancy Drew. (first created in 1930 by Edward Stratermayer but more recently recognisable in the novels of Carolyn Keene)
The first ‘girl detective’, these novels and stories are a personal favourite of mine. Nancy is feisty and intelligent and has a wonderful group of girlfriends who all have something different to add to the investigation. I read these books from a very young age and spent a great deal of time searching for the next title in the series at my local library. Pure gold.
3. Harriet Vane. (Dorothy L. Sayers)
Harriet Vane appears in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and in later books she becomes his wife. Although she is not the lead character in Sayers’ mystery stories she plays a pivotal role in the investigations. It takes an extremely strong and intelligent woman to ensnare the highly intellectual, confirmed bachelor Lord Peter and only Vane could do it.
4. Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell).
Dr Scarpetta is a Chief Medical Examiner who also solves crimes. She is an Italian American who makes great pasta as well as being a tough career woman and unmistakably the main character in this superlative series of books. Kay’s character changes and evolves over time but she never plays second fiddle to a man- something that perhaps American writers achieve better than us British do?
5. Tuppence Beresford (Agatha Christie)
Another Christie character, Tuppence solves mysteries alongside her husband, Tommy. This husband and wife team are very much equals and are touchingly supportive of eachother. This equality is interesting when you consider that these novels first appeared in the 1920s. I had to add Tuppence to my list as these novels were an inspiration for my fictional husband and wife sleuthers- Imogen and Hugh Croft.

That is my list- obviously there are plenty of great women sleuths that I have not mentioned here- so feel free to add some of your own.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I recently read Diana Wynne Jones’ posthumous set of essays on writing (“Reflections”) and she talks about the difficulties of writing a female main character. To appeal to both sexes main characters are often fairly androgynous, which is apparently pretty much unnoticeable in male characters but very noticeable in females ones. Nancy Drew isn’t androgynous (and I liked her a lot and so does my 15 year old niece) but I don’t think many boys read the books. I love Miss Marple in all her forms though – Margaret Rutherford being very different to the book Marple but equally good!


    September 26, 2013
  2. I hadn’t thought about the idea of the female lead having to be ‘androgynous’ but that makes sense. Perhaps because Miss Marple is an older character, readers feel more comfortable to think of her without a male counterpart- although they did create one for the Margaret Rutherford series of films I seem to recall!


    September 26, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on The RetroReview.


    June 15, 2015
  4. Caroline O Connor #

    I love love love the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippmann. An ex journalist in Baltimore.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 22, 2018

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