TOP TEN WOMEN SLEUTHS IN CRIME FICTION
And here they are in random order
By Peter Bartram
Author Editor Journalist
Few amateur sleuths start their fictional lives on trial for murder. But that’s the fate Harriet Vane, Dorothy L Sayer’s creation, faces in the first book in which she appears – Strong Poison. She’s saved from the gallows by Lord Peter Wimsey, another famous Sayer’s character – mentioned here only as Vane’s partner and eventual wife. Harriet makes her debut sleuthing assignment in Gaudy Night, where she eventually teams up with Wimsey and agrees to marry him. Sayers wrote five Vane novels, including Busman’s Holiday. Jill Paton Walsh added to the canon with five more after Sayer’s death.
Kay Scarpetta starts life in her first novel – Postmortem – as a chief medical examiner in Virginia, US. Later in the series, she moves to Florida and begins work as a private forensic consultant. This allows author Patricia Cornwell to involve Scarpetta – the name means “little shoe” in Italian – in a wider range of cases. Through more than 25 novels – around one a year since the early 1990s – Scarpetta applies an incisive scientific mind and capacity for hard work to a string of baffling cases while leading a private life with an inevitable roller-coaster of ups and downs.
Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski – her friends call her Vic – had a tough upbringing by an Italian mother and Polish father in the rougher streets of Chicago. Warshawski, who appears in more than 18 novels by Sara Paretsky, as well as a clutch of short stories, often gets to investigate murders with some kind of white-collar crime in the background. Reflecting her radical background, Vic has a sharp temper, a sharper tongue, knows how to look after herself – and sleeps naked. She first appeared in Indemnity Only back in 1982. The Chicago backdrop to the stories is brilliantly captured by Paretsky.
Stephanie Plum is another tough cookie – but her adventures are more likely to provoke laughs rather than gasps. Plum is a bounty hunter – pursuing American felons who’ve not answered bail for their court cases. This enterprise leads her and fat friend Lula – but don’t let Lula hear you call her fat – into some farcical situations. Not least because Stephanie is juggling the attention of two men in her life – cop Joe Morelli and security consultant Ranger. Both frequently ride to the rescue to extract Stephanie and Lula from trouble. Not difficult to keep track of where you are when you’re reading Janet Evanovich’s series. First novel One for the Money was followed by Two for the Dough – and so on. The latest is Tricky Twenty Two.
Now let’s visit Botswana to meet Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – which is also the title of the first book in the series by Alexander McCall Smith. Precious starts her agency after inheriting money from her father. She moves to Botswana’s capital Gaborone, buys a house and opens an office. In some ways, she shares a characteristic with Miss Marple. She believes the mysteries she encounters can’t be solved without understanding the character and motives of the people she meets. McCall Smith lived in Botswana for a time, so the countryside and its people really come to life in the 17 books currently in the series. The two most recent are The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine and Precious and Grace.
Clarice Starling turns up in just two books, but makes a big impression in both. In The Silence of the Lambs she is a student at the FBI’s Academy. Her mentor sends her to interview the serial killer and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter. Lecter, a psychiatrist, and Starling play a cat-and-mouse game with one another when Lecter promises to reveal details of a current serial killer on the loose in return for personal details about Starling. In Hannibal, Starling is a thirty-something FBI agent, but put out to grass after allegedly bungling a shoot-out operation. She receives a letter from Lecter, now living in Florence, which sets her off on another high-octane adventure.
Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who makes her debut in Kathy Reich’s novel Déjà Dead. Give Brennan sets of human bones and she’ll tell what the people were like, how old they were, and how they were murdered. Brennan was an alcoholic but has kicked the habit, which gives her a vulnerable dimension. She spends some of her time teaching at the University of North Caroline – but much of it scrubbing around in makeshift graves or examining bones in a laboratory. Reich has penned more than 18 books in the grisly series.
Loretta Lawson, a feminist professor turned amateur ‘tec, has an unsettling start to her life in the world of crime in the first book in Joan Smith’s series, A Masculine Ending. She’s borrowed a flat from a friend in Paris (while the friend is away) but turns up to find someone already asleep in one of the bedrooms. Loretta spends a sleepless night in one of the other rooms, then leaves in the morning to deliver a lecture. But when she gets back to the flat, she finds the mystery guest gone and the bed a mess of bloody sheets. Lawson had five outings, the last in Full Stop.
Trish Maquire is a British lawyer – a “spiky haired barrister” – with a burning sense of injustice. She first appears in Natasha Cooper’s novel Creeping Ivy. Maquire is a tenacious fighter who overcomes the fact that she’s a woman operating in a man’s world – and that she didn’t have the posh upbringing many of her fellow lawyers enjoyed. Despite these obstacles, Trish rises through her profession as the series develops and becomes a senior barrister – a Queen’s Counsel – in A Poisoned Mind. There are now nine books in the series.