10 Must-Read Patriarchy-Smashing Crime Solvers

girls girls girls graphic

Move over, Sherlock Holmes. Female authors have been writing mysteries since the genre’s earliest days, and the ranks of fictional detectives include scores of women who fight back against the patriarchy – in ways both subtle and overt – while they’re busy fighting crime. Here’s where to start with ten series, ranging from classic to contemporary, featuring smart, unconventional women bringing murderers to justice.


Murder at the VicarageMurder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)

Miss Jane Marple is the classic example of a woman turning power structures on their head by using traditionally underrated “feminine” knowledge of interpersonal relationships and the way older women are treated as all but invisible to solve crimes more efficiently than the professionals who refuse to take her seriously.

Crocodile on the SandbankCrocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (1975)

Victorian spinster Amelia Peabody has no interest in doing what British society expects of her, so she sets off to pursue her dual passions of Egyptology and crime-solving, and confounds both the British and the Egyptians by taking the lead in archaeological expeditions and murder investigations.

report for murderReport for Murder  by Val McDermid (1987)

This series was groundbreaking: Scottish journalist Lindsay Gordon was one of the first lesbian protagonists in British detective fiction. When her friend is mistakenly arrested for murder, Gordon bucks the British class system and discovers the truth buried at the fancy boarding school where the murder took place.

Cocaine BluesCocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (1989)

The Honorable Phryne Fisher is a British socialite in 1920s Australia who constantly shocks everyone around her with her liberal attitudes toward sex and social niceties and her championing of women’s and workers’ rights. Bored with the socialite life, she channels her energy into her investigative pursuits.

PostmortemPostmortem by Patricia Cornwell (1990)

In one of the first mystery series to focus on forensic science and its developing technology, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is the first female chief medical examiner in her Virginia city, and the blatant sexism she confronts on a daily basis makes it clear how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go.

beekeepersThe Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (1994)

Everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes – but WHAT IF he retired to the country and in 1915 had his life changed forever by a bookish teenage feminist? Mary Russell is an orphan who literally stumbles across the great detective, and she becomes his apprentice and later his wife. Spoiler: She’s way smarter than he is.

Naked in DeathNaked in Death by J.D. Robb (1995)

In this series of futuristic procedurals, police detective Eve Dallas is prickly, difficult, and fiercely independent, and the most powerful man in the world wants her exactly as she is. But she refuses to put anything ahead of her career and her crusade for justice.

In the Bleak MidWinterIn the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002)

Rev. Clare Fergusson is an atypical Episcopalian priest, with a messy personal life and a background as an Army helicopter pilot. Her parishioners aren’t always sure what to make of her, but Clare sticks to her guns to serve her church and community (including solving their murders) without betraying her inner self.

Silent in the GraveSilent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn (2006)

When her older, unloved husband dies, young Victorian aristocrat Lady Julia Grey is freed to gleefully ignore many of the strictures of polite society – and discovers a talent for solving murders, starting with the one that made her a widow. (Plus the books provide an interesting look at the challenges facing Victorian same-sex relationships, via Julia’s beloved sister Portia.)

Guilt by AssociationGuilt by Association by Marcia Clark (2011)

Yes, THAT Marcia Clark. Her protagonist Rachel Knight is, unsurprisingly, a Los Angeles district attorney, and in this season of Clark reassessment and enthusiasm it’s fascinating to see how she portrays a female D.A., giving her stereotypically male habits and making her so detached from domestic obligations that she literally lives in a hotel.

I could go on and on, but these ten are some of my favorites and make a good place to start. I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of great options, though – please share YOUR favorites in the comments! What other awesome lady detectives should we all be reading?

9 thoughts on “10 Must-Read Patriarchy-Smashing Crime Solvers

  1. This is a great list! Going to add several of these to my to-be-read pile. Amelia Peabody is kick-ass for sure, but I have to say that Vicky Bliss is my most favorite Elizabeth Peters’ patriarchy-smashing detective. I’d also rec Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse series (1400s crimesolving nun), Margaret Miles’ Charlotte Willett series (1700s Colonial America), and Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars books.

    • You had me at “crimesolving nun.” :) I’d also recommend Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Some of the sexual violence is a little overwhelming, but the main character is just so awesome.

  2. Hi Kate, Just wanted to let you know (in case you didn’t) that the Honorable Phryne Fisher is the star of her own show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, currently on Netflix. I discovered it recently and had no idea it was based on a book! How fun!! That one’s going on my TBR list.

  3. 1) Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is uttermuch fun to watch, and now I think I probably ought to read them

    2) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice sounds MUCH better than the dreadful “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” which also has bees on the cover and features a reimagined Holmes.

  4. I have to disagree about the Nora Roberts book. I found it terrible, and I tried to like Eve, but I just couldn’t get past the trashy (IMO) writing. Phryne Fisher is utterly awesome, though and I didn’t know Marcia Clark had written a mystery. That will be checked out!

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