Male authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were pioneers in crime fiction—a genre which arose in the mid to late 1800s. Even Charles Dickens tried his hand, with his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But, from femmes fatales to the distraught daughters of the landed gentry, there has usually been a mystery woman at the heart of any crime novel. And it wasn’t long before women began to put their own distinctive mark on this form of popular fiction.
Dame Agatha Christie
One of the first women out of the gate in the race to include female voices in crime fiction was Agatha Christie. And what run she had! She sold her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916. Her 66th and final novel, Sleeping Murder, was published in 1976. Over the course of her 60-year career, she defined the conventions of the mystery genre for all the generations since.
She wrote a continuing series of novels that featured professional private detective, Hercule Poirot. Her Miss Marple character became the archetype for all the amateur sleuths who populate today’s sub-genre of “cozy” mysteries. Her 1926 novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was voted “Best Crime Novel Ever,” by the British-based Crime Writer’s Association. Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, set the world record for longest initial run of a play—November 1953 until the coronavirus pandemic shut the theatre down in March 2020.
Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other crime writer. Her novel, And Then There Were None, is one of the best-selling books of all time. She was rarely out of the best seller lists during her lifetime. Her works have spawned countless plays, movies, homages, and outright rip-offs.
Is there a way to dispatch your enemy that Christie didn’t think of first? Her victims were stabbed, clubbed, strangled, and shot. She served in hospital pharmacies during both World Wars, and was rumored to have spent at least some of her time there studying up on deadly drugs and poisons.
By the time this mystery woman left the scene, the genre was well-entrenched in its traditions—many of which were pioneered by this one redoubtable writer.
Kicking Butt and Taking Names
About the time Christie’s career was winding down, a new type of mystery woman stepped onstage. Christie led the way, of course, with amateur sleuth Miss Marple’s sharp tongue and very pointed knitting needles. Then in 1972, British novelist P. D. James took a step back from her investigator Adam Dalgliesh to offer us a professional private eye who was a woman—Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.
But over in America, the genteel female detective caught the wave of mid-century feminism. Somewhere along the way, she swapped DNA with the grimmer male private eyes of authors like Dashiell Hammett and John D. MacDonald to give birth to a whole new breed. Sara Paretsky’s V. I. “Vic” Warshawski was as hard-boiled as the big boys, a woman, and completely ready to kick your ass if you suggested there was anything wrong with any of that.
If fictional detectives had embraced feminism by the early 1980s, it was glaringly apparent that Mystery Writers of America had become something of a boy’s club. All the critical acclaim, major awards, and fat movie deals were going to male writers and male detectives, even though MWA had been founded to promote the work of all mystery writers. Paretsky was a leading force in founding Sisters In Crime, an organization meant to promote the careers of female mystery writers. Both organizations now actively support efforts to be more inclusive of diversity in all its forms.
You Can’t Keep Secrets from the Help
From 1992 through 2000, author and activist Barbara Neely published four Blanche White novels that are not only outstanding mysteries, but give readers a fascinating window into the Black female experience rarely seen in detective fiction.
Blanche White was the antithesis of her name, and far from the femme fatale. Heavy-set and dark-skinned, Blanche was a mother, a housekeeper, and far smarter than the greedy, pretentious, entitled snobs she worked for. And you know what they say—you can’t keep secrets from the help.
Neely broke new ground and crushed a lot of stereotypes with her Blanche White mysteries. In December 2019, Mystery Writers of America awarded Neely their 2020 Grand Master award. Neely died in March 2020.
Giving Dame Agatha some stiff competition for that best seller title, romance writer Nora Roberts entered the mystery field in 1995. Roberts is a prolific writer with more than 225 titles to her credit. Her books have spent a cumulative 1,045 weeks on the on the New York Times best seller lists—the equivalent of 20 years. With more than 400 million copies of her books in print all around the world, it’s estimated that 27 copies of her work are sold every minute.
When she launched her In Death series under the pseudonym J. D. Robb, Roberts was looking for a way to release more books each year without being in direct competition with herself. The novels written as Nora Roberts tended toward classic romance and romantic suspense. She wanted J. D. Robb’s books to be completely different. Featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband/partner Roarke, the In Death mysteries are futuristic police procedurals that combine gritty street life, adult behavior, crackling dialog, and characters who have continued to evolve over a span of 52 books and counting.
I confess! I have read and enjoyed all of the books in this series, and sometimes re-read a favorite when I wanted the opportunity to slip back into the very entertaining community Roberts/Robb has created.
Find Your Own Favorite Mystery Woman!
Today, women are killin’ it in the field of mystery fiction. No matter what your taste, from the coziest of cozies to the hardest of hard-boiled, you can find many outstanding mystery novels by women. Any one of these excellent writers are guaranteed to give you a great reading adventure:
Louise Penny – Julia Spencer Fleming – Deborah Crombie – Elly Griffiths – Jenn McKinlay – Catriona McPherson – Hank Phillippi Ryan – Hallie Ephron – Rhys Bowen – Paige Shelton – Anna Lee Huber – Ingrid Thoft – Maggie Robinson
Do you need another clue? Get reading!
Many thanks to Cocosse Journal for the Agatha Christie novel-covers montage, and to Getty Images via Forward, for the photo of Christie at work. We are grateful to Express for the photo of P.D. James, and to SecondSale for the Cordelia Gray book covers. Many thanks to CrimeReads for the photo of Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible. Also to FantasticFiction for the cover images for all twenty of the V. I. Warshawsky series covers (in separate images). Jan S. Gephardt assembled the montage.
We’re really grateful to YouTube for the photo of Barbara Neely at Book World Prague in 2012, to Goodreads for the Blanche on the Lam cover, and to Bookshop for the covers for Blanche among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go. In addition, we’re thankful for the photo of Nora Roberts personifying J. D. Robb, we thank “MysterySequels.” And we deeply appreciate USA Today for the “Wall of In Death” montage of covers.
Contemporary Mystery Women
In addition, we have what seems like a bazillion people to thank for the Contemporary Mystery Women collection. Jan S. Gephardt put together this montage, too. On the top row, we really want to thank Deb Crombie for the photo of her with her German Shepherd, Dax, WBOI for the photo of Anna Lee Huber, Tor Forge and photographer Chitose Suzuki for the photo of Hank Phillippi Ryan at home, Enterprise and photographer Sue Cockrell for Catriona McPherson’s photo, and BookPage for Louise Penny’s photo.
Also, we’re really grateful to Sisters in Crime of Puget Sound for the great action shot of Ingrid Thoft, to Jenn McKinlay for her photo, and to Peter Hedlund IMGP7808.jpg (original image) and Wikipedia for the photo of Julia Spencer Fleming. In addition, many thanks to Goodreads for the photo of Paige Shelton, and to Criminal Element for the sunny picture of Rhys Bowen, all on the second row!
Finally, several whoops and a holler of thanks go to Wild Mind Creative for the photo of Hallie Ephron, to The Norfolk Wildlife Trust for the Elly Griffiths photo, and to Poisoned Pen Press and photographer Jan De Lima for Maggie Robinson’s photo. Lastly on Line Three, Penguin Random House provided the photo of relative newcomer Amy Pershing. And we thank them for that.