While I have a few male detective favourites, my love of great female investigators goes back to my early years of reading crime fiction. I’ve always preferred Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, but when female writers started producing books with really tough women in them, I was hooked. So here are five that I love (and it was almost impossible to choose just five!).
V.I. Warshawski (novels by Sara Paretsky)
I first read a V.I. novel in the late 80s, and was instantly drawn to how tough she was. Described as hot-tempered, sarcastic and fiercely self-reliant, she was a female P.I. in the feminist era who didn’t put up with aggravation from anyone. She is skilled at karate and carries a gun with confidence. But Vic has her soft side as well, going in to bat for friends and family, and she has a great relationship with her elderly downstairs neighbor, Sal, with whom she shares two dogs.
Many of the plots revolve around murders to do with white collar crime, but one of the best aspects of the books are the Chicago settings. As in most good crime novels, the city comes alive as Vic battles her way through her investigations. Always lots of action and retribution! One movie was made of Deadlock but I just couldn’t see Kathleen Turner as Vic – not tough enough. Paretsky is also revered by female crime writers for having set up the very first Sisters in Crime group.
Vera Stanhope (novels by Ann Cleeves)
Unlike Kathleen Turner playing V.I. Warshawski, I can’t read any Vera novel without seeing Brenda Blethyn in my mind. Blethyn plays Vera perfectly in the TV series, from the lack of patience with slow-movers and idiots to her expectation that her squad will both do whatever she demands and always help her find the killers. As author Ann Cleeves says, Vera looks “more like a bag lady than a detective”. But Vera’s backstory, which filters into the investigations occasionally, is one of hidden unhappiness, a mother who died early and a father who didn’t seem to love her. On the occasions when we see her at home in her cold stone house out on the moors, we can’t help but feel for her.
However, her focus is always her cases, and caring about those who have suffered. She is a fascinating mix of dedication, impatience, compassion and intelligence. She’s also one of the few older female detectives in fiction – not that she lets that slow her down. One of my favourite lines from Vera is “Loneliness is not for the faint-hearted.”
Carol Jordan (books by Val McDermid)
Unlike some other characters, I’ve never had a clear picture in my mind of DCI Carol Jordan, even after watching the TV series. She feels to me like someone always on a knife edge, steely and determined, with a mind of her own. She can become entirely focused on an investigation to the point of obsession, which makes her the perfect foil for psychologist Tony Hill. Their enduring connection is a highlight, as he’s the one person she almost lets in (but won’t). Her reliance on alcohol to get her through is her fatal flaw, but this is presented in a way that strengthens our interest in her as a character. As with any character who’s built very high walls around themselves, readers want her to “solve” herself as much as they do the crimes. We’re still waiting and hoping.
Sam Shephard (books by Vanda Symon)
Where some of these other strong female detectives have been in their jobs for many years, Sam Shephard is pretty much just starting. As a sole-charge constable in a very small NZ town in the first book (Overkill), she has to take on a murder investigation and even when shoved aside by those higher up the police chain, she’s compelled to continue on her own. It becomes a feature of her investigations in the books that follow – she might be young but she’s got brains, she’s good at getting people to open up, and she’s persistent.
When she’s propelled into the detective ranks later on, it causes quite a bit of ill feeling among her male colleagues. Like most good feisty females, she’s not about to fall into the arms of any old male either. Still, she’s got a romantic side buried in there somewhere, when she’s not hiding from her overbearing mother.
Frieda Klein (books by Nicci French)
The one thing I hated about Sunday Morning Coming Down, the seventh Klein book, was knowing it was to be the last. Frieda is a psychotherapist, and a totally intriguing character. She lives alone in the kind of house I would love, tucked away in London, and has few friends, but those she has are fiercely loyal to her. DCI Karlsson, the detective who must constantly call on her for help, also puts her in danger. Frieda’s own troubled past, which involves an attack she never revealed to anyone, hovers in the background in many of the novels, and is a focus in Thursday’s Child.
Because she is such a complex character, following her thoughts and decisions, and having deep insights into her mind, makes these novels even more intriguing to me. She’s not so much feisty as grimly determined and strong inside in a way many female characters we see are not. But her vulnerabilities are what add to her complexity. Absolutely fascinating.
I guess you can see from my choices here how my own character, Judi Westerholme, evolved. I do love tough females, hard and unrelenting on the outside but with deep resonances inside from their past. These are the kinds of characters that are such a pleasure to write, and I love to see Judi grow on the page.
Sherryl Clark is the author of Trust Me, I’m Dead and Dead and Gone published by Verve Books. Dead and Gone is published on 25th June 2020.