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Ten of Crime Fiction’s Leading Ladies

Mar 08, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts

Reto #17 “Contraluz”In our ongoing series of  columns by  frequent commenters, Jen Forbus takes a trip back through the annals of crime fiction to discuss her favorite female characters.

I am always on the lookout for great female characters in crime fiction. Few things will turn me off a book faster than the cliché damsel in distress or the bumbling idiot who solves a mystery by tripping over the answer while simultaneously gossiping on her cell phone and putting on make-up. Come on, you’ve read them too. Which is not to say a female character can’t find herself in hot water and need assistance. But when she needs a “big strong man” to take care of all her problems – no thanks. On the flip side, she doesn’t need to be Wonder Woman, rescuing the whole world with her unbelievable superpowers, while dressed to the nines with nary a hair out of place.

No, I’m looking for real women. Women who have strong character, are intelligent, can exercise independence but also appreciate the value of relationships. These women have goals and dreams, flaws and imperfections. I guess these are the women I would like to know and be friends with. The women I’d enjoy spending hours with.

So who in crime fiction have I found to fit this bill? I’m glad you asked. Here are my ten favorites.

10. Ree Dolly – Daniel Woodrell puts poor Ree through the wringer in WINTER’S BONE and she continues to fight back, determined to overcome her fate at any cost. Ree is passionate about her goal and despite her hardened exterior, she is capable of tremendous love and compassion. Maybe it’s the resiliance of youth, but Ree Dolly is a character to admire.

9.  Fiona Kenshaw – Ridley Pearson has created a fiery, down-to-earth character in Fiona. Her interests are varied, she’s a compassionate character, and she has a spirited sense of humor. Fiona experiences a range of emotions as most any human would, but she doesn’t wear those emotions on her sleeve. She’s smart and she’s tough – she’d have to be to photograph Pearson’s crime scenes!

8. Miranda Corbie – A woman who definitely lives in a man’s world and battles the prejudices of it. Kelli Stanley’s protagonist left a world of prostitution to work as a private investigator – in 1940s San Francisco. The opportunities for her aren’t as bountiful as they are for her  Pinkerton counterparts, but that doesn’t hold Miranda back.  She’s shrewd and determined but not infallible.

7. Miaow Rafferty – O.k. Miaow isn’t technically a woman yet, but she’s an incredible female character.  Timothy Hallinan expertly illustrates the importance of acceptance and the pains of growing through Miaow.  She’s spunky and smart and oh so funny. She’s sensitive and creative and intuitive. She can also throw one heck of a temper tantrum. You can’t help but just want to hug Miaow.

6. Stella Hardesty – is middle age, overweight and on a mission. I love that she defies the “accepted image” and doesn’t take crap from anyone. While most of us don’t know someone who’s killed her husband, we do know women with Stella’s gumption. And being middle age doesn’t mean being dead. She deals with physical attractions just like the rest of the human race. Stella’s a devoted friend and a resourceful, intelligent business woman.  She just happens to bend the law a little with her freelance jobs.

5. Kate Brannigan – comes out with guns blazing. Not literally of course, but she uses her resources well. The outcomes of her efforts aren’t always successful and those around her may need some bail money, but Kate’s the kind of person you wouldn’t mind spending a night in jail for. She’s determined and witty; she’s true to her word and she’s enterprising. Kate’s the type of woman who can simultaneously be the life of the party and the one who makes sure everyone arrives home safe.

4. Adelia Aguilar – Talk about a woman living in a man’s world.  In 12th century England, Arianna Franklin plunked her protagonist down to complete sexism. Adelia has to pretend that her male, Muslim traveling companion is the esteemed coroner, not herself. Add her single-parent status to the scorecard and she’s treading on very thin ice. Her circumstances are special to be sure, but she also doesn’t take crap from anyone, including the King of England. Although Adelia is a hardened woman, due to the circumstances she exists in, she’s also compassionate and tolerant of religious beliefs, genders, cultures, etc. Franklin devised an amazing woman in Adelia Aguilar. She will be missed.

3. Carol Starkey – doesn’t fit the lead female role we’ve all become accustomed to. She smokes like a chimney, swears like a sailor and sports a rather large scar down her chest from her run-in with a bomb. But Starkey is smart, funny, skilled and devoted. She was very passionate about her job with the bomb squad and lives with the ache of that loss. Starkey isn’t about social climbing or career climbing. Instead she’s dedicated to easing the ache of her loss by doing right with the means she has available to her. And of course Elvis Cole’s cat likes her, so that’s really all we need to know.

2. Victoria Moretti – For me as a reader, there is a fine line between effective use of profanity and excessive use of profanity. Craig Johnson is one of few writers who truly uses it to the benefit of his female character. Vic isn’t trying to prove anything about herself, rather Johnson is trying to reflect the life she has lived and the heart she works so hard to protect.

1. Ellie Hatcher – I think I could have written this entire blog post about Alafair Burke’s Ellie Hatcher. She embodies everything I love in a female protagonist. She’s smart, funny, strong, human…She makes mistakes, can be socially awkward and can laugh at herself. She has physical beauty but doesn’t really see it in herself. Her true beauty is inside. Ellie values her family and knows what she wants from life; she’s capable of compassion and empathy, but is equally capable of anger and frustration. Ellie Hatcher is realistic and fun. She’s the kind of hero I love to root for. She’s the kind of person I look for in a friend. So spending my hours with Ellie is a true pleasure.

All right, there are my favorite ladies. Now tell me who yours are.


Jen Forbus has spent the better part of her life not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up. After graduating from Baldwin-Wallace College with degrees in English and sports medicine, she went right back to school to accumulate more debt and a certificate to teach high school English.  Since then, she’s taught, written specs for accounting software and tech manuals, and built software programs. These days she’s back in the education realm, coordinating adult professional development at the National Association of College Stores.

Through her career changes, the one constant in Jen’s life was a love of reading and a well-earned knack for writing. When she was no longer talking about books in the classroom, she discovered blogging, and in 2007, Jen’s Book Thoughts was born. Her love of crime fiction was ignited by Linda Fairstein and Robert Crais, who hooked her on their respective series, and Jen quickly took her place among the pantheon of preeminent book bloggers. Ask any crime fiction author—from those just starting out to those inhabiting bestseller lists week after week—and each will tell you a fond and often funny story about Jen. Readers worldwide trust her reviews and look to her for their next reading recommendation. In addition to her blog, Jen shares her love of crime fiction with fellow fans on Twitter and Facebook, and is also a regular contributor to CRIMESPREE MAGAZINE.

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41 Responses »

  1. I don’t read as much crime fiction as I used to, but will have to check some of these out, since Jen is THE authority when it comes to the genre, in my opinion. Winter’s Bone has been on my radar since the Oscars, so I’m glad to see it features a strong female character.

  2. I’m ashamed to admit I’m only familiar with a few of these characters. Since I value your opinion & recommendations so much, I’m making it a goal of mine to change this!

  3. Thanks Kathy! That’s extremely flattering. I have a lot to learn and read still but I truly love the genre. I think you’ll enjoy these women of crime fiction. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

  4. Thanks Jenn! We share a lot of the same tastes in reading, so I’m fairly confident you’ll like most if not all of these ladies!

  5. Thanks, Ms Forbus.
    I can always count on you to add to my reading pile.

  6. Great list, Jen! I’ve been meaning to catch up on Alafair Burke, was going through her titles online last night. Do you have a particular favorite, or one you recommend starting with?

    • Cullen, I’ve adored Ellie since her first book, DEAD CONNECTION. And I think that book also includes a lot of important Ellie foundation, so to speak. 212 is probably my favorite so far, but I think DEAD CONNECTION is a must read for the series. Was that completely round-about or what? 😉

  7. Great list, Jen, and so happy to see Ree Dolly among the favorites. I may steal this idea sometime for a column of my own.

  8. Excellent list – like everyone else I’m glad to see Ree on there. For my own, I’d probably add Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Christa Faust’s Angel Dare and Liza Cody’s Eva Wylie as well as Sara Gran’s Josephine Flannigan and every last one of Megan Abbott’s protagonists.

  9. I’m going to also predict that Marcia Clark’s Rachel Knight is soon going to be on a lot of your lists. She’s great!

  10. Good to see gals like Miranda, Stella, Kate and Carol there.

    ANNA LEE by Liza Cody. While everyone was huffing and puffing about Kinsey, Sharon and V.I., across the pond Cody was writing an amazing story arc about a young female P.I.’s journey from innocence to world-weariness. Forget the lame, misguided show — these books shoulda been bigger Stateside.

    And in the comic book world, Max Allan Collins’ unapologetically hard-boiled and in-yer- MS. TREE tackled “women’s issues” (everything from abortion rights to breastfeeding on the job) just as effectively (and often years before) they were covered in prose by other writers. imagine Mickey Spillane writing a soap opera.

    And truth be told, I’ve always had a soft spot for A.A. Fair’s BERTHA COOL. Greedy, corrupt, dishonest, unpleasant and weighing slightly less than a Buick, she ran her own detective agency while most female sleuths of the time were puttering around in the rose garden, making tea for the vicar or waiting to be rescued. Politically correct? Who the hell cares?

    One final note: Kalinda on THE GOOD WIFE. A hardcore investigator and corner cutter who’s so compartmentalized her life, she has more personalities than Sybil. The best private eye currently on the tube, and in a long, long time.

  11. No love for Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs?

  12. I am not familiar with many off this list because I tend to flock to the male-protagonist crime novels. I know – for shame!

    However, I really love Siobhan from Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series (wish there were more of these out there). To me, she is every bit as good as Rebus.

    Then there’s Cassie – Tana French’s character. I’m with Seth on Maisie Dobbs, though “crime novel” isn’t really what comes to mind when I think of her, for whatever reason.

    • Jenn, it isn’t hard to find yourself reading a lot of the male-protagonists. The crime fiction genre has no shortage. I think that’s partly why I’m so excited when I find a great female who really resonates with me. I don’t want the guys to go away, just want the ladies to shine as well.

      Also glad you brought up Ian Rankin’s series. I was just eying one of his books on audio yesterday. Think I’m going to pick up!

  13. No love for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum? That does surprise me.

    Among others I’d list are :

    – The female characters in Andrew Vachss’ Burke series, who are strong characters in general.
    – Sonja Blue in Nancy Collins’ “Sunglasses after Dark” – a kind of cross between horror and hardboiled.
    – Temperance Brennan in the Kathy Reichs books
    – Angel X in “Fine art of stealing” (and a couple of others) by Christopher Brookmyre

  14. Great list, fun to read, good words! So glad to see Ree there, she’s certainly an excellent female character in so many ways, and told so well…..but so are the others. Hard to pick only 10. I do agree, Maisie Dobbs by Winspear is one that should be on everyone’s list, she’s so individualistic and in such a hard frame of time after WWI, which she remembers too well; and she has set up her own investigative business then, which is unusual too-excellent traditional mysteries, these. Mallory by Carol O’Connell blew my socks off in the first one when I read it in 94, and has been a fave of mine since-her character is one others try to be-and what a story of where she came from to make her what she is now-I like Mallory as a character. Eva Wylie by Cody is one of a kind, I miss reading about her. The main character in the Garnethill trilogy by Denise Mina is a character whom a reader will never forget. Ever. Paddy Meehan by Mina is also a good female character, but Maureen O’Donnell is one in a kazillion and has stayed with me for decades as a well written woman–with so many foibles and yet doing right-or as good as she can. Donna Moore’s “old dogs” Letty and Dora, are very interesting female characters, crooks maybe, but fun too. Jen, I agree, nothing turns me off faster than copycat characters, give me someone entirely herself and entirely original. Thanks for this blog post, has been fun thinking of my favourite female leads. 🙂 And I totally agree, Kalinda on The Good Wife is a truly hard core investigator, life in compartments, best private eye in long time, excellent female investigator-I love seeing her do her work! Bobbie

  15. All of Helen Fitzgerald’s protagonists.

    Anya from I-5 by Summer Brenner

    Crissa from Cold Shot to the Heart by Wallace Stroby

    Katja from Katja from the Punk Band (one of a kind) by Simon Logan

    Kali from The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan

    Low Bite by Sin Soracco

    Fiona from Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi

    Caroline Mabry from Over Tumbled Graves by Jess Walter

    Simone Kirsch from Peepshow by Leigh Redhead

    Mercado from Fifty Grand by Adrian Mckinty

    Magdalena Rivera from Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

  16. A second for Angel Dare in Christa Faust’s Money Shot and upcoming Choke Hold. I’m fascinated by Hannah Vogel too in Rebecca Cantrell’s work. She’s someone up against real evil forces and making her way.
    Just picked up Dead Connection last week on your tip. About time I start catching up with Ellie Hatcher.

  17. Great to see a post by a woman about women characters on International Womens Day. Too bad the highly sexualised cliched images had to accompany the post. Mixed messages much? But thanks anyway, not enough focus on women writers or women characters on Mulholland Books!! Keep up the good work 🙂

  18. Where’s VI Warshawki? Vic is smart, savvy, can move in all circles. She has depth, brains and passion.

    I do agree about Ellie Hatcher, I adore Alafair Burke’s novels.

  19. First time here (and loving it already!)

    Love this list – some well-known characters and some new ones to investigate.

    I would like to suggest one if I may:

    Smoky Barrett from the Cody Macfadyn novels. She is perfect in a completely imperfect way: scarred (both physically and emotionally), tenacious, funny, and incredibly committed to the cause. Her friends support her but she doesn’t rely on them all the time. She is flawed, but makes the most of what she has.

    In other words, perfect 🙂

  20. While she might not exactly be crime (more like spy thriller) I can’t help but suggest Greg Rucka’s wonderful creation, Tara Chase. She’s kicked ass through both comic books and novels,The Queen & Country series, and she’s as hardcore as they come.

  21. Two things: I have been reading fantasy novels with female leads in them because I got tired of all the guys getting attention and the girls are only good for being rescued. I have read some of David Baldacci’s crime novels and there are females in there who are strong, so I thought about looking for some more and now thanks to you I have even more to read 🙂 and second: Which novels are Victoria Moretti, all the Craig Johnson novel is see has a guy named Walt Longmire in them.

  22. i stumble here while looking for a book title i once read bout ten year ago more or less. i know this is rather random but it be great if you happened to have read this book and can tell me the title since u seems like a detective novel fan.

    the heroine is a female detective. she got scars over her body for some reason.rape?

    she got intuition,dark train of thought thingy that kinda help her to understand the criminals mind. the criminal seems to think he or got inspiration from jack the ripper?

    she got a female assistant. and some issue with her daughter/sister, havent met in years. i think her assistant turns out to be her long lost daughter/sister? study criminology or something.

    any idea? thanks in advance.sorry for the random post


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