Five Crime Novels Where Women are the True Detectives

March 10, 2014 | 10 books mentioned 23 7 min read


coverFour episodes into HBO’s crime show True Detective, I thought to myself, This is so good, it’s almost like a book. For this viewer at least, True Detective achieved a rare balance. Standard procedurals like Law & Order are reliably engaging because we know the mystery will be solved and wrapped up (more or less) nice and neat by the end of the hour. But stuffing plot twists, red herrings, and personal strife into an hour-long format can be hasty if not, at times, absurdly implausible. On the other hand, endless dramas with mysteries at their core run the risk of failing to resolve the puzzle long past the point where viewers still care enough to tune in each week.

But True Detective contained the psychological depth of a drama with the reliability of a procedural — in short, all the satisfaction of a great mystery novel. Let’s hope that the eight episode mystery format returns for at least another season.

One particular wish (buoyed by rumors) for a second season is that HBO will cast female detectives next time around. Amid the outpouring of love for the show, more than a few viewers diagnosed True Detective with having something of a “woman problem.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for example, wrote that she was worn out from True Detective’s “macho nonsense,” what with its lack of complex female characters and tired trope of male detectives “avenging women and children, and bro-bonding.” In short, True Detective offers the same old “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses,” and that’s boring.

These conventions are as tough to shake in the crime novel as they are on television. If you love a good mystery book, there is little getting around the fact that most of the victims are women. A little girl goes missing, is a classic opening. Or, The body of a woman is found. A whole sub-genre, the “Special Victims Unit” of these books if you will, involves violent sexual crimes against women. If women must always be the victims, why not have them be the saviors, too?

As someone who inhales crime novels in bulk, I was getting a little tired of the male detective-female victim set-up myself. Recently, the owner of the wondrous Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca (a shop so charming I’d like to move into it), remarked to me off-handedly that I had a “type” when it came to mysteries — I went for the female detectives. (I use the term “detective” here loosely to describe the crime-solver, whatever their job or lack thereof.)

I never intended to discriminate against the men! But there was some truth to his observation. It wasn’t a matter of principle, it was about the books. Female “detectives” were bringing new twists to the classic tropes. Some of the best mysteries I was reading had women cracking the cases.

So whether or not True Detective returns for another season and solves its woman problems, here is a short list of crime novels (many of them the start of series) where there’s a woman in charge. You might discover, like me, that you’re an accidental fan of the female detective. And if you have any other recommendations, please share — with True Detective over, it’s an especially bad time to run out of crime novels.

Garnethill by Denise Mina

coverGarnethill begins when Maureen O’Donnell wakes up with a terrible hangover to find the dead body of her lover, a psychiatrist at the outpatient clinic she attends, tied up dead in her living room. There are clues in the room that point to Maureen’s own trauma as an incest survivor — secret pieces of her personal history that almost no one knows about. Looking to clear her name, Maureen and her close friend Leslie, a domestic violence shelter employee, begin uncovering a horror story of abuse at the local psychiatric hospital.

Maureen and Leslie are as hard-living and jaded a duo as True Detective’s Cohle and Hart. They have seen terrible things. The novel, the first in a series, takes place in economically-ruined Scotland, and the descriptions of booze are almost loving. (Glenfidditch, ice, and lime cordial. Peach schnapps and fizzy lemonade from a two-liter. A whiskey miniature with a cold can of Kerslin.) This is a sex crime book, but one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting. In Garnethill, those tasked with protecting the vulnerable are often the most dangerous, and it’s usually up to the vulnerable to protect themselves.

It might sound like there is nothing more empowering than a victim of sexual abuse taking on crime flanked by her motorcycle-riding, domestic-violence fighting friend. But fair warning: Garnethill is dark and angering, for the ways in which Maureen and Leslie touch on reality. Maureen constantly reminds that crimes don’t end for the victims just because the perpetrator has been stopped. Tough girl Leslie reminds of how much ingenuity it takes for women who protect other women to counter the physical threat that men pose. Together, though, Maureen and Leslie achieve that magic of any great crime-fighting partnership. Each is strong and weak in her own way, and just when you think one leans more on the other, everything changes.

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

coverThe Crossing Places, first in a series featuring archaeology academic Ruth Galloway, begins when the local chief detective approaches Galloway about bones found in a bleak area near Norfolk, a sacred ground in the Iron Age. The chief detective believes these might be the bones of a young girl who disappeared ten years before, and whose abductor continues to send him letters riddled with obscure archaeological and literary references.

Crime brings several men into the life of Ruth Galloway, who is nearing 40, single, overweight, and living a solitary with her two cats. Ruth is relatively content about this arrangement; it’s the men about her who don’t quite know what to do with her. Watching men react to Ruth is frustrating but also great fun. Some patronize her, others desexualize her. Some assume she needs protecting, others forget her in their haste to protect more delicate-looking females. They are all rather inept. Forget solving the crime, Ruth has her hands full dealing with the men bumbling about her. But despite its grim crimes and grim setting, The Crossing Places is on the lighter side and Ruth is infinitely relatable.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

coverIn Sharp Objects, hard-drinking, damaged, and recently institutionalized reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown after eight years to report on the disappearance of two girls. Gillian Flynn’s most famous character is Gone Girl’s cool girl/psychopath Amy, and in Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, the women are likewise the show-stoppers. Camille’s hyper-perfect mother, with her crew of bored and medicated ladies who lunch, and her beautiful, Mean Girl half-sister, flanked by popular groupies, run the town. Staying in the secretive and somewhat surreal mansion with these two alpha-females and her own resurfacing past, Camille is very, very vulnerable. She’s trapped in a world of women that she doesn’t understand and that grows increasingly sinister. Girl world is a scary place to be.

Sharp Objects provides a counter-narrative to True Detective — the women in the novel are powerful, well-connected, and menacing. Not to say that Sharp Objects sends up female stereotypes or empowers women. More than once I’ve wondered: does Gillian Flynn even like women? In a Millions conversation on Flynn, Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter note that Flynn “repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.” Nonetheless, Sharp Objects inhabits the world of women as fully as True Detective inhabits the world of men. As a female reader, there was something familiar about the grotesques in the world of women that made reading about them that much more eerie than the usual male suspects.

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

coverThe Various Haunts of Men, the first in a series by Susan Hill, is billed as a “Detective Simon Serrailler” mystery. But DCI Serrailler is barely a presence for much of this first book. Instead we follow Freya Graffham, a newly arrived detective in Lafferton, England who has just left London and a marriage that failed for relatively banal reasons. Hill’s book begins when a female jogger goes missing without a trace, and in pursuing the case, Freya is caught up in the world of alternative medicines, miracles, and snake-oil salesmen.

What hooks Freya onto the case is discovering that the missing woman has a bold case of unrequited love. This sticks with her. She relates to what unrequited love feels like, and that makes the lost jogger hard to dismiss as just another missing person. This sort of touch is exactly why female detectives can be such a refreshing change — Freya is drawn into action based on a very simple shot of empathy for the victim, unlike the macho men of True Detective, who are rather heavy-handedly motivated because they see red at the very thought of a woman hurt.

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of hard-boiled mystery novels is the vicarious thrill of reading about detectives behaving badly, from scotch for breakfast to questionable liaisons with murder suspects. If that’s the sort of fun you’re looking for, you won’t find it in The Various Haunts of Men. Detective Freya’s main hobby is singing in the church choir.

The Likeness by Tana French

coverThe first time we meet Cassie Maddox is in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, where she is homicide co-cop to detective Rob Ryan. In The Likeness (not a sequel), a murdered woman is found who looks exactly like Cassie, and Cassie’s old boss convinces her to go undercover in the woman’s place to tempt the killer into coming out into the open. Operating undercover, this time Cassie is all alone.

Being alone is precarious. Cassie’s ties to the police force, including her boyfriend and her boss, give her a lifeline to reality but don’t prevent her from being seduced by the life of the murdered woman and her isolated, close-knit group of friends. This clique, comprised of former loners, seems to be bound together not because any one is in love with another so much as each are in love with the group as a whole. The lack of conventional one-on-one relationships makes their bond look magical, almost divine. While some loner detectives like True Detective’s Cohle look in sometimes enviously, even longingly, on happy scenes of marriage and children, Cassie, firmly in a relationship, falls for the unromantic connection that holds these people together. She longs to be part of it.

The Likeness is sprawling and rich. Tana French’s novels look forward as they look backward, and are filled with nostalgia for the heady, heightened reality that comes with working a big case. Should True Detective take hints from The Likeness or any other of French’s novels, that would be a thrill for mystery fanatics in and of itself.

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NY Chapter of the ACLU. She was formerly a writer for The Atlantic's news website The Wire, and a co-editor of NY media blog FishbowlNY. Her writing has appeared in The Millions,, Newsday, National Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and is partly collected at her website, Follow @ujalasehgal.


  1. Tess Gerritsen’s books featuring a female homicide detective inspired “Rizzoli & Isles,” TNT’s TV show featuring that detective and her friend, a woman medical examiner.

  2. Fascinating. Another prototype example of female “eye”/perspective is A Jury of Her Peers,” a short story by Susan Glaspell. I am pasting in some text from Wikipedia below:

    “…loosely based on the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell covered while working as a journalist. It is seen as an example of early feminist literature, because two female characters are able to solve a mystery that the male characters cannot, aided by their knowledge of women’s psychology. Glaspell originally wrote the story as a one-act play entitled Trifles for the Provincetown Players in 1916.[1] The story was adapted into an episode of the 1950s series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

    I can understand Emily Nussbaum’s frustration. So much mainstream work continues to dig through the same tired ruts in the road. Funny, also, that the kneejerk reaction of some men (and, sadly, women) to any departure from the ruts is dismissed into the generic category of “chick flick,” and thus of no interest to them.

    Finally, in terms of an amusing personal incident, I happened to visit a bar (I usually don’t hang out in bars) to hear a friend’s band play. I had a.) one person, a stranger, ask me if I “was the bass player’s mother,” and b.) overheard another man of my own age (early 40’s) comment to his friend that my friend and I were “OVER.” We were two perfectly presentable humans (no torn T-shirts, lipstick on) but were out “trope-defying” that night. Such a sad and narrow little person, to pronounce vital, active, strangers (one a skilled surgical nurse, the other in one of the most fertile creative periods of her life) “over.”

    Not quite on point, but surrealist artist Remedios Varos work is fascinating — deeply female, symbolic.

    Finally, I enjoyed the summary of Tana French’s “The Likeness” above. It resonate with me because I think the deep attachments (non-romantic) of a group, especially a female group are so underrepresented in creative work.

    Moe Murph
    So Not Over

  3. From Nic Pizzolatto’s interview with Buzzfeed:

    “…the show is plainly showing a vein of misogyny running through not just these men but their culture. To the idea that this is not on purpose, or that the females are one-dimensional, I’d say we’ll agree to disagree. If someone sees Maggie as merely some kind of fuming shrew, then that viewer is revealing their own prejudices, not the show’s. Given that neither of our leads has a healthy relationship with a woman, and given that we only see things in their POVs, that women are not given a full representation is correct for the story being told here.”

    That said, I really hope the rumors about the Mara sisters being involved with season two of True Detective turn out to be true, and I’ll be checking out some of the title’s on this list

  4. I automatically switch off any TV show/movie etc in which a female character is referred to as “the girl.” Sloppy writing. Insulting. And not worth my time. I have avoided watching True Detectives because friends told me all the female characters got killed or were “pillows fallen on by the male detectives.”

    The World is Round , people! as ykw just said.

  5. A few other delightful female sleuths:

    Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series and Corinna Chapman series
    Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling series
    Donna Andrews’s Meg Lanslow series
    Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series and Eleanor Trewynn series
    Simon Brett’s Carole Seddon/Jude series (Fethering mysteries)
    Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series
    Liz Evans’s Grace Smith series
    Troy Soos’s Rebecca Davies series
    (and of course there’s always Miss Marple!)

  6. RE: Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Now on TV! High-budget Australian series — Public Television.

  7. What’s interesting to me about these female detectives is that they are still saving women. Is this because women are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes? Is this to form some kind of female-centered world in this novels? For whatever reason, benign or malevolent it might be interesting for a dude to be in distress for once :)

  8. And for the pulpy stuff, Christa Faust’s two Angel Dare books — Money Shot and Choke Hold — feature Angel Dare as the lead. Christa also happens to be the first (and only, as far as I know) woman published by Hard Case Crime.

    Her standalone novel Hoodtown is also fantastic, with a female luchadora as the sleuth getting to the bottom of things. Great, fun book.

  9. “…one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting.”

    I disagree :)

    Lisbeth Salander saves the male hero Blomkvist’s life (from Martin) and also his career (Wennestrom affair), no one saves her or even know of her rape – Book 1. He returns the favour in Book 2 but without being any part of the fight in which she’d hurt one of the most powerful men as bad as she’d been hurt. Also, she deals with the rapist lawyer and motorcycle gang entirely on her own. In Book 3 Blomkvist does help her in most aspects of the murder case (both men and women need help when hospitalised and jailed), but at the very end no one rescues her but her own brain and agility when she’s in a physical fight with the strongest man in the book (Niedermann).

  10. I’m surprised Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, J.D. Robb, Lisa Gardner, J. A. Jance, Elizabeth George, Ellis Peters and Sara Paretsky aren’t mentioned.

    However I’m thrilled that no one mentioned the absolutely dismal writing of Patricia Cornwell. How or why her novels continue to be published are the real mystery.

  11. Val MacDermid is excellent too. After reading almost all of Denise Mina and Val MacDermid, it is hard to find anything else worth turning to. I am now looking at Nicci French, a team of two writers, which is also very good. One thing that is missing in all this is a good realistic representation of British multi-ethnic society. Denis Mina does that well. Something akin to Luther or Shetland on BBC TV.

  12. I’m four years late to this thread, but after starting to read some Meg Abbott mystery novels I was curious about more woman writers and detectives of crime.

    For an article that starts off about an American male detective TV show, I’d like to suggest an alternative and international female detective TV show: Top of the Lake.

    Here’s the summary from BBC Two:
    “While visiting her dying mother in New Zealand, Detective Robin Griffin (actress, Elizabeth Moss) begins investigating the disappearance of Tui Mitcham, a twelve-year-old pregnant girl from the small town of Laketop.”

    Granted, this show also begins with a little girl, gone missing, but Detective Griffin’s empathy parallels the empathy that Ujala mentions from Susan Hills’ Detective Freya in her novel The Various Haunts of Men. Griffin has suffered some family damage and misogyny on the investigative team. Interestingly, the series shows the role a woman’s collective that tried to shield from the male dominance on the island. And the series’ ending is a terrifying conclusion of complicitness.

  13. You can see the comic mentioned by me in October, it will be released by the Warner Bros. in October if you know, it is from some Tintin comic book

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