Most of us ladies who are obsessed with crime fiction, likely got our start reading Nancy Drew when we were young girls in pigtails; young girls who didn’t really want to play the games our friends were playing. We liked puzzles and being observant and maybe kids thought we were weird or awkward. We watched Goonies and Ghost Writer and read The Babysitters Club. We wanted to go on a mystery adventure and solve a crime!
So we played at being Nancy Drew with our Sailor Moon “casebooks,” watching from our windows and writing down the neighbours’ activities as if we were going to catch them doing something sinister, like rolling a body into a carpet.
And as we got older, we moved on to more adult crime fiction mysteries, but always gravitated towards Nancy like characters – Veronica Mars, Olivia Benson, Clarice Starling. Because Nancy had taught us it was okay to be into what we were into. We’ve never forgotten Nancy even though we have grown up. She’s frequently cited as an inspiration by writers and readers alike. Her name is mentioned in my “about” page for this blog, and I have been working on a collection of her books for a few years, picking them up from antique markets and used books stores. (Only the ones originally published by Dunlap & Grosset.)
But let’s be real for a moment – in hindsight, Nancy was kind of boring, tame. A true basic bitch. She was rich and white and polite, doing her sleuthing in sweet collared dresses and Mary-Jane pumps with a perfectly coiffed flipped bob. Of course, the series started in the 1930s, so what do you expect? There wasn’t really any room for Nancy to change societal norms drastically, nor was there a market for it.
Really, if you go back to those original books, you’ll find them to be racist and anti-feminist in a lot of their elements. Again, what do you expect from the time?
Besides the elements that are problematic to today’s evolved society, you could always find Nancy Drew looking like Nancy Fucking Reagan, telling young girls it was okay to like themselves and to use their brains while they get up to a little sneaking around. And as long as your heart is in the right place, maybe it’s okay to break a rule or two. She told young girls there was room for them too in that world, not just more Hardy Boys.
And that is why Nancy has survived as a character for nearly 90 years.
Okay, so she wasn’t super progressive. I get it. But she started something. She’s the original female sleuth who has influenced every female sleuth to come after her. They’ve taken that inspiration and run with it.
Mystery fiction as a giant genre, a hot market. It’s filled with an abundance of choices for you to choose from. You like amateur sleuths? Detectives? FBI agents? Journalists? Coroners or doctors or forensic experts? Professors or private eyes? Take your pick! Female characters are doing it all. They are educated, opinionated, badass crime solvers running shit in a “man’s world.” And Nancy Drew helped get them there.
Here are my picks for favourite smart and fearless, damaged and driven female sleuths in crime fiction today. Thanks Nancy!
“Tact and diplomacy had been invented by someone with too much time on their hands.”
If you aren’t reading the D.I. Kim Stone series by Angela Marsons, you are definitely missing out on one of the most engaging female detectives to hit the pages in a while.
Emotionally shut down with a traumatic past, she has a drive to catch killers that is unmatched. She’s rough around the edges with a laser-like focus on her cases, and unyielding loyalty to justice and her team.
The whole series continues along this thread of posing the question: Will Kim ever chill the fuck out? Is she capable of love? Of happiness? Of not being a cold-ass bitch?
DO WE EVEN WANT HER TO BE? In between learning about Kim as a person, we are enmeshed in dark cases with plenty of twists and procedural elements.
“Don’t stew in your juices, don’t let anything sink in. Don’t wait, don’t bide your time, don’t save your breath, don’t sleep on it.”
Bounty Hunter Alice Vega is the star of one of my favourite reads this year, Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna. Brazen, short-tempered and brilliant, she has to do yoga to keep herself calm and centre, but it rarely works and usually she is still beating the shit out of skips or low-lifes. Her only appearance on the page so far is this cracker of a thriller/whodunnit. It is everything you want a novel like it to be.
Alice is enigmatic, a little shut down, but with something intense bubbling over the edges. She’s also very good at what she does – she knows it and doesn’t have time for those who want to question how she does her job. Snarky, smart, with a short fuse for bullshit – you will fall in love with her physicality and skills with mental warfare. She’s a tough-as-nails Queen.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Look, I get it. I rave about this series so much you are fucking sick of it. I don’t care. I won’t stop until you’ve all read the UNSUB series by Meg Gardiner. All of you. Yes, you!
The star of Meg Gardiner’s bomb-ass novels, is Caitlin Hendrix. A former cop and newly minted FBI Profiler who has a shitty father and a crazy personal life, all wrapped up in law enforcement and serial killers.
Caitlin is smart, but human. She has a raw, exposed quality to her – emotional, almost to the point of mental health issues that require attention. She doesn’t pretend to not be damaged or vulnerable, but does her best to be strong. From book one to book two, we are seeing more of her cracking under the weight of the work she does and the past that haunts her.
Much of herself has been formed around the existence of serial killers, whether that was the one her cop father was hunting during her childhood that drove him to madness, or the ones she hunts now with the Bureau. Caitlin has come face to face, quite literally, with the worst of the worst that humanity has to offer, but she still fights to maintain a human disposition that is not marred by the darkness.
She’s a real woman who isn’t afraid to feel things while playing with the big boys in her field. If you’re a crime fiction fan there is literally no excuse to not be reading this series.
“The difference between heaven and hell was the people.”
The Angie Pallorino series by Loreth Anne White is one of my favourite reads this year all because of this character.
Angie Pallorino is a beast. A BEAST. A total rage monster. And I love it. She’s got some issues. Dark, twisted issues. And she has a hard time controlling the consequences of her past and present. Her anger, her blackouts, her sexual choices – it all screams “Stay away!” But you don’t leave. You stay glued to the pages. Angie is impulsive and reckless, but she lays it all on the line every time. It’s either 0 or 100 with her, no in between.
She’s giving you angry, damaged, ambitious and intelligent sex-vixen realness, 100% of her page time.
Get in on this!
“Gorillas in the dining room. Dinosaurs in the backyard. That’s the least of it. The truth is, we are all a little crazy.”
I honestly love this little series by Sandra Block. There’s something light to the storytelling; something that makes the reading experience easy and gentle despite the setting and the plot details.
Zoe is a doctor in the psychiatric ward, dealing with troubled patients and heavy medical concepts, but she comes across as an awkward nerd just trying to do her job earnestly and with compassion. There are some personal moments woven into the storytelling, but it works flawlessly and adds an extra dynamic to the reading experience. Reading Zoe is to read someone like you and I. Just a regular girl in an extraordinary situation. And I love that. I feel like I connect to Zoe, like I could be Zoe – except I’m not smart enough to be a doctor.
It’s a little mystery, a little psychological, a little real-life drama with the perfect amount of genuine humour bringing everything to life.
“The world was a wonderful place. Full of nightmares.”
Don’t. Even. Get. Me. Started.
Detective Valerie Hart is your new girlfriend, guaranteed. Do you like your detectives to be badasses who get shit done, even if they are half in the bag?
Then you’ll love Valerie Hart.
She’s damaged and emotionally stupid, but she knows killers and she knows how to solve a case. She puts herself so far into her work that sometimes you worry she’ll never find her way back out.
Also…. I’m starting to see a theme with the kinds of women I’m attracted to. Cold, mean, tough and violent? I’m sure Freud would have something to say about it. *shrugs* Meh.
The writing itself is just as stark and raw as Valerie is. It’s full of gore and disturbing concepts, so I don’t necessarily recommend this series to everyone. But if you’re a tough cookie who enjoys being immersed in a darkness that makes you squirm, pick up this series.
“I’m more than surviving. I’m fucking thriving.”
I wish I saw more people talking about Alex Barclay’s Ren Bryce series. Seriously, it’s soooo gooood. Barclay is a phenomenal storyteller, in my opinion.
Her most prolific character, Agent Ren Bryce, is one of my all-time favourite females in crime fiction. She battles bipolar disorder which gives her a little edge, a little recklessness, a little emotional unpredictability. But she’s also a damn good cop. She works hard and parties hard.
She’s funny, too. The dialogue is laced with witty banter and clever remarks which adds a real human element to the overall dark themes of the books.
But truth be told, this is either a series you will love or hate. Some people don’t like Barclay’s writing style. Some don’t like the humour. Some don’t like the mental health issues of the main character. But for me, it all works.
Ren Bryce is brilliant and entertaining, and the cases are twisted and visceral.
“I hated men like Von Neeley, the “nice” guys who always want to pray with you, who always offered you blessings and put-on smiles. Men who always told women how to live, what to wear, who to sleep with, all in the name of God.”
If you could make a checklist of everything you want in a female detective lead, Elouise “Lou” Norton would probably tick off a good chunk of the items on your list.
She’s a PoC. She’s smart and tough with a golden sense of humour. She has a rich inner life and best friends who are written in an honest human way. You know how sometimes you read a novel focused on female friends and you can’t help but think, “that’s not how women behave”?? (*cough James Patterson cough*) There’s none of that here. It’s true and honest and you feel like one of the girls.
Lou is competent and good at her job, valued by superiors and colleagues in her male-dominated career. But she’s not perfect – she has flaws, real ones, that you just inherently understand. Or maybe they’ll frustrate you. Either way, it’s honest. And Lou is aware of her shortfalls. She’s self-observant and self-reflective and she kicks ass when she has to.
This series by Rachel Howzell Hall combines all of those perfect things from Lou, with excellent procedural writing and twisted crimes that make the wheels of your brain turn.
“You can be the hunter, or you can be the hunted.”
I could not love D.D. Warren anymore than I do.
She is a Boston Police Sergeant. A total BAWSE. And she plays the role perfectly. D.D. loves food, especially buffets. She doesn’t have pets, doesn’t trust herself to even take care of a plant. She considers her homicide squad to be her family, and doesn’t have any desire to look outside of that (until later novels.) She’s not an alive-people-person, but she is a dead-people-person. She’s so good at her job that it will give you tingles and chills in your happy places.
D.D. is happiest on the job, where she is comfortable with her family and comfortable with her obsession to solve a case at all costs.
Lisa Gardner is a staple author in the crime fiction genre. You can always count on her to deliver an action-packed mystery. And the D.D. Warren series is my favourite. You grow and learn and evolve with D.D. as you follow along with her personal life and her professional one.
“Tell her not to do something, tell her she couldn’t do something, and she’d do it just to spite you.”
J.T. Ellison has been taking a break from her flagship series, focusing on standalones lately. And while I am a fan who will read whatever she writes, I do love me some Lt. Taylor Jackson the very most.
Taylor is a Nashville cop with an FBI fiancé and lots of twisted serial killers to catch. You’ll love her personal style, her easy personality, and the relationships she has with those around her.
But mostly you’ll love what a dedicated cop she is. Taylor will stop at nothing to keep her city safe, even if it means risking her own life.
This series by Ellison is both thriller and procedural. It’s both exciting and real, honest and raw. Dark, twisted but always carrying with it a hope for a happy ending.
Stay safe. Be kind. But, take no shit.
Later, Booknerds ✌️🔪