Strong female in Mystery/Suspense Books
April 10, 2010 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Strong female lead in Mystery Books

I recently started reading J.D. Robb in "Death Series" and have read "Women's Murder Club series". I am looking for other mystery/suspense books that have a strong female lead character.

Any help is appreciated. Thanks.
posted by roxiesmom to Education (50 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I really like Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series. Lisa Lutz's Spellman series features a female main character that is quite different from anything else out there.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2010

Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books.
posted by sallybrown at 8:17 AM on April 10, 2010

V.I. Warshawski.
posted by matildaben at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2010

Sue Grafton
early Patricia Cornwell
Karin Slaughter
If you can find the Pay McKenna books by Orania Papazoglou/Jane Haddam, they are great fun.

I am fond of Laura Lippman and Sujata Massey and Lauren Henderson (for the Sam Jones novels). Their characters are a little more girly. Also, the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. The HBO series based on it (now out on DVD) is wonderful.

I don't much like Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series, but people who like it really like it.

Steig Larsson's trilogy features a really unusual female half of a detecting pair. The first book is called (in English translation) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
posted by BibiRose at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

J. A. Jance's Joana Brady series, and Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak series.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:27 AM on April 10, 2010

How about Nora Charles from Hammett's The Thin Man?
posted by saladin at 8:28 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Julia Spenser Fleming's Claire Ferguson books are about an unconventional female detective who is an ex-army pilot turned priest.
posted by gnat at 8:35 AM on April 10, 2010

P.D. James - Cordelia Gray books (only 2)

Alan Bradley - Flavia DeLuce books (only 2 - so far!)

Ayelet Waldman - Mommy Track mysteries

Denise Mina - Paddy Meehan books

Diane Mott Davidson - Culinary mysteries (and now there are a bunch of other people writing culinary or cozy mysteries)

Other girly/silly ones: Christine Jorgensen - Stella the Stargazer, Deborah Donnelly - Wedding Planner mysteries
posted by ansate at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2010

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone books and Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books are two popular series.

(Incidentally, your local public library has whole books on this topic, and people who have been elaborately trained in this kind of service.)
posted by box at 8:38 AM on April 10, 2010

Also, the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. The HBO series based on it (now out on DVD) is wonderful.

Yes, I was just coming in to suggest that. Great series of novels. The "mysteries" aren't particularly challenging, but as a character study and learning about some of the history of Botswana and its relations with surrounding neighbors, it has been a wonderful read (and viewing).
posted by 1901gunner at 8:38 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Out by Natsuo Kirino.
posted by geekchic at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2010

Elizabeth Peters has strong female characters, yet her books aren't grim. I especially like her Amelia Peabody books, which should be read in order (or close to it -- the first books aren't as good as the later ones, so you might want to jump in a few books along).
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:47 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dorothy Sayers' Harriet Vane
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple
Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next
Laurie King's Mary Russell (although I hesitate to recommend the books, many people love them)
Victoria Thompson's Sarah Brandt
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does Thursday Next count?
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:56 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I very much enjoyed the first two books in the Mary Russell series by Laurie King. Russell learns the detecting trade from Sherlock Holmes himself, which gives the stories a little extra kick, but they're page-turners for sure. The Beekeeper's Apprentice is the first one.
posted by Joey Bagels at 8:59 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Carol O'Connell's Mallory series, for sure, and Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield books. You might like Angie in Dennis Lehane's books - she's secondary to his protagonist, but since she's his partner, she's there a lot and I think she's excellent. Seconding the Kate Shugak. I only liked Scarpetta for the first three or four books, and then she drove me crazy.
posted by rtha at 9:03 AM on April 10, 2010

I'd actually recommend the short story collection A Moment On The Edge, which is a collection of mystery stories written by women, featuring a lot of female protagonists. It's a good way to decide if you like V.I. Warshowski or any number of other serialized female sleuths.
posted by klangklangston at 9:10 AM on April 10, 2010

I second Carol O'Connell. As always when I recommend her books, I advise extremely strongly to read them in order. I also second the tentative recommendation for Laurie King. She has another series, which I preferred until it was taken over by Sherlock Holmes as well.

Minette Walters, though not so into series, generally writes mysteries with strong female characters. Jasper Fforde's books are fantasy mysteries, but certainly worthwhile reading.

Beverly Connor writes enjoyable mysteries starring an anthropologist and museum director. If you're interested in in historical mystery, Cora Harrison writes fun ones. I liked Tana French's books. The second one (in the same world as the first, though not a direct sequel) has a female detective as a protagonist, the first has her but is more about her (male) partner.

Elizabeth George, maybe, though many of her books focus more on the male co-leads. Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan tends to share time between them equally.
posted by jeather at 9:18 AM on April 10, 2010

Note: All of my suggestions can be classified as chicklit/romance-mysteries.

Charlaine Harris has four mystery series with female leads: Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, Harper Connelly, and Sookie Stackhouse. The last two are more supernatural/urban fantasy, the Sookie books definitely.

I like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. They're slapsticky, but amusing. I tore though the entire series in a week.

A few of Jennifer Crusie's books are mystery based, but are mostly romance. Fast Women comes to mind.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:26 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestion of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone books - the series goes A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc. I don't think it really matters if you read them in order, just pick one up to try.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:26 AM on April 10, 2010

What, no Anna Pigeon?
posted by dpcoffin at 9:36 AM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Or Sunny Randall?
posted by dpcoffin at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2010

Anything by Mary Higgins Clark.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2010

Mrs. zooropa loves Jan Burke's books, her main character is a reporter named Irene. She says to start with the first one and read them in order if you can.
posted by zooropa at 9:51 AM on April 10, 2010

Seconding Elizabeth George's novels, plus the note that Inspector Thomas Lynley gets more narrative attention than Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. But Havers is a wonderful character, your basic working-class hero, who's just not the main star of the show.
posted by Quietgal at 10:05 AM on April 10, 2010

Try the Lady Emily Ashton mysteries by Tasha Alexander. The lead is a widow in Victorian England who (as far as I've read!) refuses to remarry so she can maintain her independence.
posted by amber_dale at 10:39 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for asking this; it's a terrific question, generating great answers.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on April 10, 2010

Seconding the brilliant Dorothy Sayers and Harriet Vane, as well as Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next.
posted by fantine at 11:18 AM on April 10, 2010

I enjoyed Tasha Alexander's books, except for Tears of Pearl which I thought seemed kind of phoned-in. Definitely read them in order.
posted by BibiRose at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2010

Seconding the Spellman series by Lisa Lutz. It's a comedy/mystery series about a dysfunctional family of private investigators, who investigate each other in their free time.

Also, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series.
posted by Xere at 11:59 AM on April 10, 2010

This is a second for Elizabeth Peters and Amelia Peabody - I read them quite a bit when I was younger and really enjoyed it. Also, the books on cassette are narrated by someone with a crisp British accent and sound quite nice.
posted by ajarbaday at 12:05 PM on April 10, 2010

Thirding Elizabeth Peters, although I'm going to recommend her Vicky Bliss series over Amelia Peabody. Start with Street of the Five Moons, which features both Vicky, a plucky art historian, and Sir John Smythe, renowned art thief. You can go back and read their separate first books later (Vicky: Borrower of the Nigh; John: The Camelot Caper), but together they are just magic, and Vicky is awesome. They're very funny and Trojan Gold (third of the Vicky/John) books is one my all-time favorites (although I think its plot has actually been Jossed). They were begun many years ago, but the series has contemporized Vicky and John at basically the same ages.

If you like strong lesbian women, there's *lots* of lesbian mysteries out there. I think one of the best is the Kate Delafield series by Katherine V. Forrest (first book: Amateur City). Laurie R. King (mentioned above for the Mary Russell Holmesian books) has a series about a lesbian detective named Kate Martinelli which are also very good (A Grave Talent is first).

My mother loves the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovitch (never read them myself). I liked G is for Gumshoe best out of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series.
posted by lysimache at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2010

I am surprised The Steig larsson trilogy was only mentioned once--there is no stronger and vulnerable female lead in a mystery than Lisbeth Salander--part Aspergers syndrome. given to shyness and violence, bisexual/straight/gay, brilliant and foolish, determined and reckless. And that is just a start. The Millenium Series.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't believe I forgot Nicola Griffith's Aud Torvingen books. Read them in order: The Blue Place; Stay; and Always.
posted by rtha at 12:51 PM on April 10, 2010

Seconding Stephanie Plum and Anna Pigeon.
Also, Skye Denison in Denise Swanson's Scumble River mystery series, and Helen Hawthorne in Elaine Viets' Dead End Job mystery series.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:24 PM on April 10, 2010

I love Marcia Muller's books about P.I. Sharon McCone.
posted by saradarlin at 1:43 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love JD Robb, though I am sadly not into a lot of the authors mentioned on this page. I do, however, want to recommend maybe taking a look at Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series--note that I linked to Wikipedia because Fairstein's site has auto-load audio on the main page.

A quick clarification of my taste: I loathe tea cozy mysteries, but I also loathe unrelentingly grim protagonists who metaphorically shot themselves in the foot all the time socially (VI Warshawski comes to mind). YMMV.

Fairstein is the inspiration for the blonde prosecutor in Law and Order: SVU, and I think her series has a lot of the elements that you see in Robb's, with a strong cast of friends, a hint of romance (less so than the Robb stuff, but still present), a NYC setting, a bit of grit, an interesting, flawed but capable lead, and devious villains. The series is not without its flaws but as a fellow Robb fan I suggest checking it out.

You could, also, potentially like recent Elizabeth Lowell (who is wayyy more on the romance side of the suspense/mystery continuum). Her titles are somewhat trashy, and escapist oriented, so you may not be into that at all (she's somewhat polarizing). It's worth a shot; I'd recommend Moving Target or The Wrong Hostage as ones to try.
posted by librarylis at 2:13 PM on April 10, 2010

The Heartsick series by Chelsea Cain has two leads--the victim of the serial killer, Archie Sheridan, and Susan Ward, the journalist who winds up entangled in the drama. Susan is an interesting young woman (anti-authority, struggling with herself and her work, other problems young people face) who tells just as much of the story as Archie.

Then there's the third lead, Gretchen Ward, the serial killer. Although the writing in the series is not remarkable, Gretchen is a great character and is strongest character of the three leads. The books are worth the read for her alone, though I personally prefer to read for the Gretchen-Archie psychological dynamic.

Note: these novels tend to be on the graphic side of thriller/mystery and get progressively more disturbing in terms of imagery. Try the first novel and then use your own discretion.
posted by far from gormless at 2:29 PM on April 10, 2010

The Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels by Anne Perry feature a strong female character who is born into minor aristocracy but rebels against her upbringing and marries a working-class police inspector. The series is very well-researched and provides an interesting look into women's roles in Victorian society throughout all social classes. If you like historical fiction, you would probably like these.

The Detective Inspector Irene Huss series by Swedish author Helene Tursten features one of the best female protagonists out there, I think; she's very rounded and realistic, and the novels examine the difficulties of being a woman in a non-traditional role. I highly recommend these books, with one caveat: they do not shy away from graphic details and can be quite disturbing, though not gratuitously so.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:15 PM on April 10, 2010

Because it needs to be said again: Anna Pigeon, Anna Pigeon, Anna Pigeon.

Nevada Barr is the best.
posted by Neofelis at 3:35 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just remembered another one: Gail Bowen's Joanne Kilbourne series. The protagonist is a university professor/social justice advocate, and the series involves a lot of academic/political intrigue.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:46 PM on April 10, 2010

41 comments so far, and not a single person has yet mentioned the archetypal strong female protagonist in a mystery novel, Nancy Drew?!

Sure, the books are ridiculously old-fashioned and aimed towards teenage readers, but they're good kitschy fun, too.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:45 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kerry Greenwood has two series - Phryne Fisher (1920s, gorgeous to a fault, excessively upper class with working class roots, irritatingly perfect and anachronistic yet total fluff and fung) and Corinna Chapman (contemporary, fat, feminist, often a mouthpiece for authorial irritations yet again, fluffy and fun). Both are set in Melbourne Australia and are very topical about it.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:51 PM on April 10, 2010

Kathy Reichs regularly turns out fun murder mysteries. Her heroine, Temperance Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist. (She is also involved in the production of the TV series Bones.)
posted by saeculorum at 6:12 PM on April 10, 2010

On the off chance that you like historical mysteries, I really like Mistress of the Art of Death (and the sequels) by Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman).

It's set in medieval England and the central figure is Adelia, a sort of proto-coroner trained in medicine at the University of Salerno. I'm not enough of a medievalist to accurately judge all of the historical detail, but it's a very interesting setting.
posted by clerestory at 6:34 PM on April 10, 2010

A lot of my favorites have been named but one who hasn't is Margaret Maron. Her older series set in NYC features the gruff, awesome Sigrid Harald while her more recent books set in NC star Judge Deborah Knott. Good writing and good fun.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:52 PM on April 10, 2010

Some others not mentioned:

- Faye Kellerman's Pete Decker/Rina Lazarus series
- Wendy Roberts 'Ghost Dusters' series (crime scene cleaner who sees dead people)

Mentioned series I also enjoy:

- Charlaine Harris
- J.A Jance's Joanna Brady series
- Patricia Cornwell (early ones only)
- Sue Grafton (excellent series)
- Ariana Franklin (highly recommended and very under-rated)
posted by JoannaC at 11:15 PM on April 10, 2010

Julie Smith writes about a female detective in New Orleans. I haven't read one in a while, but I remember really like them.
posted by sulaine at 7:09 PM on April 11, 2010

I just read one of the Ariana Franklin "Mistress of the Art of Death" books and it was a pretty decent read. My only real complaint is that Adelia is almost too strong and perfect to be interesting as a protagonist. It was still a fun book though and I will read more when I get the opportunity. Definitely give them a look if you like historical fiction.
posted by Neofelis at 12:14 PM on April 13, 2010

This is slightly left-field, but the Andrea Cort novels by Adam-Troy Castro fit the bill perfectly....but they're sci-fi mysteries. If this doesn't turn you off then you can try Emmissaries from the Dead or The Third Claw of God.
posted by shimmerbug at 6:57 PM on April 15, 2010

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