Celebrating the women of crime fiction

March 8 is International Women’s Day and 2011 marks the 100th annual celebration of “a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future”. Interestingly only 4 countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland) celebrated the inaugural day in 1911 while today it truly is an international event and is even a public holiday in some countries. In a world where lots of activism focuses on our failures and the things we humans have yet to achieve, I like the fact this particular day is focused on celebrating the positive strides the world has made in its treatment of women.

In the world of crime fiction women sometimes have a rough time of it. They certainly appear far more often as victims of crime, often brutally tortured and murdered victims at that, but I shan’t clutter up this celebratory post with such dark issues. Instead I shall highlight just a few of my favourite women of crime fiction (in no particular order):

Of course you can’t really celebrate the women of crime fiction without giving a nod to Dame Agatha Christie, if not the world’s favourite crime writer of all time she is, apparently, the best-selling (having sold a rather astonishing 2 billion books in 45 languages). Of course she has her critics but its hard to argue her mastery of the suspenseful plotting of detective stories. The fact that one of her most loved characters is not only a woman but an unmarried, elderly woman is to be congratulated. Even today it’s not that easy to find women over 60 being taken seriously by anyone, so seeing Jane Marple solve a series of crimes and be respected by people that matter has to be seen as a positive achievement for women.

Sara Paretsky and the protagonist of her 15 crime fiction adventures, private investigator VI Warshawski, are both worth celebrating on this particular day. Paretsky was one of the first modern crime writers to create a strong female character who wasn’t ‘a victim or a vamp’. VI is smart, independent and possessed of a social conscience (reflective of Paretsky’s own). She was an eye opener for me as a lover of mysteries in search of just such a character (though I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found her). Some of the books have stepped over the boundary into political rant but the last couple have returned to top form and it’s definitely a series I will keep following.

Denise Mina is a Scottish crime writer who has two different series featuring really strong, vibrant female characters. The Garnethill trilogy features unlikely amateur sleuth Maureen O’Donnell, of whom I wrote in my review of the first book

“Maureen is funnier than Bridget Jones, has better friends than Carrie Bradshaw and is the kind of practical, non shoe-obsessed woman that fiction needs more of. She is ‘pathologically independent’ (Mina has a way of describing things perfectly yet succinctly), a loyal friend, a helpful though perhaps misguided patient (she makes up stories that she thinks will make her therapist happy) and doesn’t define herself only terms of the bad things that have happened to her. In a nutshell she’s fantastic.”

Maureen is so fantastic that I have been saving the remaining two books to feature her for a rainy reading day. Mina’s other series to feature a strong female character is a more conventional procedural series but all of her writing that I’ve read has an interesting combination of gritty reality and humour as well as superbly complex female characters.

The first Scandinavian crime fiction writer I can remember reading (though my notebooks tell me I’ve read others) is Åsa Larsson who has written three intriguing novels which all feature two strong women, lawyer Rebecka Martinsson and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella. The novels probably do conform to the stereotype of dark Nordic crime fiction but the characters, particularly these women, are so credible and interesting that you don’t mind being enveloped in blackness for a while. These books always make me feel like I have been invited into another world for a little while.

Australia has produced a crop of really wonderful female crime writers over the past couple of decades but my personal favourite is Leah Giarratano whose first book prompted me to start this blog (I had been thinking about it for a while but when that book came along I knew I wanted a permanent home for my thoughts about what I was reading). Giarratano’s heroine is Jill Jackson, a Sydney policewoman who has been through more trials than any half-dozen mere mortals ought to and while I know that isn’t really credible I love the way she is portrayed as facing her fears head on. So often women are shown as passively accepting their fate that I really like seeing someone who deals actively, if not always sensibly, with the crap life throws her.

So, which women of crime fiction would you celebrate on International Women’s Day?


This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Asa Larsson, Denise Mina, Leah Giarratano (Aus), musings, Sara Paretsky. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Celebrating the women of crime fiction

  1. Kerrie says:

    Well done Bernadette. A fine post


  2. Norman says:

    Great post, and I might try Sara Paretsky again if she has stopped ranting.
    I would celebrate Maj Sjowall, who had such influence on the future of Swedish crime fiction, Karin Alvtegen, Ruth Rendell, Fred Vargas and Donna Leon.


  3. Jolly good suggestions there Norman. In addition to those I’ve read of those authors I have more titles by all of them on my TBR pile.


  4. Bernadette – You’ve got some wonderful choices here, and I think this is an excellent post :-). I could add a long list of names, but the two whom I think of are Louise Penny and Elly Griffiths.


  5. Donna says:

    Great post Bernadette. There are several whose books I really enjoy but I’ll just pick one for the purposes of this post – the wonderful Barbara Seranella (who I miss very much) whose Munch Mancini series – about a female car mechanic who is an ex drug addict – is funny, touching and a great read. And I know I said I’d just pick one, but I can’t not mention Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Helen Fitzgerald and Karen Campbell.


  6. Dorte H says:

    Miss Marple and Maureen O´Donnell are great role models for any writer of crime fiction. I´d also mention Sue Grafton´s Kinsey Millhone, though, and my Danish favourite, the tough & independent Fanny Fiske.


  7. Marg says:

    I need to get back to the Garnethill books. I read the first two but somehow the third one has dropped off my reading radar.

    Great post.


  8. kathy durkin says:

    Sara Paretsky, and her alter ego, V.I. Warshawski get a major vote for International Women’s Day, if we’re basing this nomination on crime fiction categories. She was the earliest independent, feisty, super-capable, smart, fearless woman detective I had ever read about. And I don’t mind her “ranting,” as I have seen and see what she does in our common location,. What she writes (and speaks, as she does speak on many issues like free speech, etc.) I think is good and valuable, given many developments over here. As a friend of mine says, “there should be more Sara Paretskys” here.
    And, yes, Kinsey Millhone and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone are similar in character.
    Agree about Denise Mina’s character in Garnethill, loved that trilogy.
    I have to agree with Fred Vargas, the brilliant, creative author of quirky, yet stunning mysteries, which broaden my mind and rattle its gray matter, as I go on her adventures.
    Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway is a favorite, a real person, not glamorous, not a blackbelt in karate, not a former spy or policewoman.
    Tereesa Solana is a good writer. And Donna Leon is a favorite, have gobbled up quickly each of her new books, hot off the presses.


  9. kathy durkin says:

    Yes, and Happy International Women’s Day! (I just finished being immersed in its history and writing on this.)


  10. JoV says:

    This is a brilliant post Bernadette. I haven’t read enough crime fiction to pick my favourites. I do want to read books written by Kate Atkinson, Camilla Läckberg, PD James and perhaps revisit childhood read of Agatha Christie.

    Here’s a toast to all strong women of the world!


  11. Bill Selnes says:


    I enjoy Sara’s books. Her passion for social causes infuses but does not overwhelm her mysteries.

    I enjoy P.D. James both in fiction and non-fiction. Last year I learned alot from her book Talking About Detective Fiction.

    Of Canadian women mystery writers I love Gail Bowen, a fellow resident of Saskatchewan.


  12. Belle Wong says:

    Great post. I’ve added Mina’s Exile to my to-read list – it sounds like a series I’ll enjoy.


  13. whatsaysyou says:

    Awesome post, Bernadette, and I so wanna hug you for writing up this *hugs*. I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie since I was a teenager (quite unusual for a girl in the 1990s to love her works but meh, at least a Miss Marple always made my day rather than some silly little romance book). Besides Agatha Christie, I am also celebrating Kathy Reichs who made forensic anthropology awesome for women and girls. Thanks for the blog and I will definitely go check out Denise Mina in my local library 🙂


  14. Bill Selnes says:


    I left an earlier comment on women mystery authors.

    I am not sure how much non-fiction you read. I just posted on my blog a review of Three Cups of Tea on school building focused on the education of Pakistani and Afghani women. If you want to read the review it is at http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2011/03/three-cups-of-tea-by-greg-mortenson-and.html.


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