Ten of Crime Fiction’s Leading Ladies

Reto #17 “Contraluz”In our ongoing series of  columns by  frequent Mulhollandbooks.com 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.