Top Five Female Detectives
The mystery genre is filled with interesting sub-genres: domestic suspense, spy thriller, political thriller, noir, cozy, legal thriller, supernatural thriller, romantic suspense. But procedurals, populated with amateur and professional sleuths, may be one of the best-known sub-genres. From classic detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe to more modern-day examples such as Harry Bosch and Kinsey Millhone, we instantly recognize them. We may have even dipped our toes into the mystery genre with amateur sleuths like Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew.
There are so many great detectives investigating their way through complex mysteries, I could talk about them for days. But female detectives face special challenges. If they’re in law enforcement, they’re a minority: even today, only 19 percent of the Special Agents at the FBI are women. Like their real-life counterparts, they may be facing sexism, harassment, and exclusion as par for the course. They may also be dealing with pregnancy and childbearing issues in a profession with uniquely physical challenges and dangers. Somehow, they always still manage to get the job done.
Here are some of my favorite female detectives kicking ass and taking names in fiction today:
- D. Warren: The police detective created by Lisa Gardner first appeared as a secondary character with a pretty exterior that made people underestimate the hard-nosed investigator underneath. But she quickly became a protagonist in her own right, spinning off into the popular D.D. Warren series. Along the way, she married an FBI agent and had a child, then suffered a debilitating on-the-job injury that put her on health leave. But nothing keeps D.D. Warren down for long, and she’s already back to work in a new book, adjusting to a management role because of her new physical challenges.
- Kay Scarpetta: A medical examiner seems an unlikely investigator, but Patricia Cornwell’s iconic Scarpetta is exactly that. Her investigation may start in the autopsy room, but inevitably, she’s drawn into the actual casework, assisting long-suffering homicide detective Pete Marino. Throughout the series, Scarpetta dealt with the (apparent) death of her married lover, watched the niece who idolized her grow up and follow her into law enforcement as an FBI agent, and moved across the country to head up a whole new forensic department. Scarpetta may be most comfortable handling forensic evidence, but you can never underestimate her because once she gets involved, she won’t ever give up.
- Lisbeth Salander: Tattooed, pierced, antisocial, and a ward of a corrupt state system, the heroine in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is also a talented hacker. As the novels progress, she’s soon revealed to be independent, intelligent, and persistent as hell. She faces sexual assault, legal restrictions on her autonomy, and societal judgments based on her appearance, but Lisbeth is a survivor. And once she puts her mind to something, there’s no stopping her—not even a perverted killer who’s managed to keep his secrets hidden for decades can outwit this young detective.
- Stephanie Plum: Initially introduced as broke and jobless (and somewhat hapless), Janet Evanovich’s heroine quickly blackmails her way into a job as a bounty hunter. No matter that she has absolutely no qualifications, she starts work by going after the biggest bounty she can. That means trying to track down a killer, and in the process, she pisses off the wrong people. Plum’s family antics and her ongoing love triangle lend realism and relatability to some of the more outlandish plot devices. The series starts off as dark as it is funny, and Evanovich proves talented detectives can come in surprising packages.
- Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles: Tess Gerritsen packs a one-two punch with her detective duo, Rizzoli and Isles. They’re one part cop, one part medical examiner, and with Gerritsen, it quickly becomes obvious that the sum can be more than its parts. Rizzoli is brash and outspoken, and her journey over the series involves a fling that turns into marriage and motherhood. Isles is subdued and proper, with a complicated family history that’s revealed early on in the series and has far-reaching aftershocks in both her life and her work. Rizzoli and Isles make an unlikely pair, but when they work together, no mystery remains unsolved.
About Elizabeth Heiter
Critically acclaimed and award-winning author Elizabeth Heiter likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen countries and translated into eight languages; they’ve also been shortlisted for the HOLT Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier award, the National Readers’ Choice award, and the Booksellers’ Best award and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice award. Learn more at www.elizabethheiter.com
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