As a feminist who grew up being teased for her intelligence and lack of athletic talent, I’m enthralled by tales of women using their brains and brawn. You can probably tell from this list that I find it particularly satisfying when women kick butt in eras when it was uncommon for women to do so. Below are five of my favorite female sleuths with introductory quotes from their first appearances (or very close to it.)
1) Molly Murphy
“I was free of Ballykillin, free of all that cooking and cleaning for four ungrateful males, free to be who I pleased … if I could only get far enough away to start over. One thing was sure – I didn’t intend to die yet.”
Molly Murphy first appeared in Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen, published in 2001. The series now numbers eighteen books and follows Molly as she emigrates to America while running from the law. Despite fulfilling the stereotype of the fiery Irish redhead, Molly is a complex, engaging character, strong in the face of hardship and unafraid to go after what she wants. From running her own detective agency to her friendship with Sid and Gus (the female couple across the street), to her new husband moving into her house after the wedding, Molly makes her own rules, even in early 1900’s New York City.
(Side note – I love these books so much that I made sure my family visited Patchin Place, Molly’s neighborhood in the Village, when we were in New York City in 2015. e.e. cummings lived there and it is a charming street well worth checking out.)
2) Veronica Speedwell
“Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse than becoming the mother of six. Unless perhaps it were plague, and even then I am persuaded a few disfiguring buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood.”
I think even mothers would agree with that sentiment at times. Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell relishes making her own way in the world, despite the hardships and judgment from the Mrs. Clutterthorpes of the world. She is fiercely protective of her independence with no desire to marry or have children. And as obvious from the chosen quote, she doesn’t give a damn what people think and enjoys shocking them on purpose.
Veronica is a lepidopterist, who travels the world studying butterflies and enjoying the company of men when the mood strikes her. She has even been published in scientific journals, no small feat for a woman in Victorian England. From the very first page, her snarky, intelligent narration and unorthodox attitudes enchanted me. And there are delicious family secrets, which are one of my favorite things to find in a book. I could not read the series fast enough.
3) Maggie Hope
“And it doesn’t change that they hired that cross-eyed lug Conrad Simpson—a mouth breather who probably still has to sound words out and count on his fingers—all because his daddy has a fancy title and he has a … a … a penis!”
Oh, Maggie. Tell us how you really feel. Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope captured my heart from that very first rant and is still my favorite female sleuth. It probably helps that she is also a spy with delicious family secrets. (Yay!) Maggie has no time for the hypocrisy and sexism of the 1940s and isn’t afraid to say so. In the above quote from the first book Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, she rants about being turned down for a private secretary position with the Prime Minister, despite her degree from Wellesley in mathematics. Maggie knows her worth, but finally grudgingly agrees to be a secretary at No. 10 in order to “do her bit.” She ends up doing far more for her country than she ever bargained for and we are lucky enough to experience the thrills and heartache with her along the way.
4) Perveen Mistry
“‘Have you a brain, or is it sawdust?’ The offensive slur flew out before she could stop herself. ‘I’ve quit!’”
In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Sujata Massey’s heroine Perveen Mistry is the first female solicitor in Bombay. But it is 1921, so she still faces sexism and restrictive traditions at every turn. Perveen is not afraid to speak up for herself, but she (mostly) does it with respect. And she doesn’t believe in wholesale destruction of traditions – just that women themselves should decide if they will participate. Besides an engaging heroine and solid mystery, this book includes fascinating details about Indian life and households. From Bombay to Calcutta and the Muslim to Zoroastrian religions, the many layers and facets of Indian life between the wars are exposed.
5) Flavia de Luce
“If you’re insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes.”
Only eleven-years-old when we first meet her, Alan Bradley’s Flavia is a science prodigy, devoted to studying chemistry (especially poisons) in the lab inherited from her late Uncle Tarquin and fascinated with death. When a corpse turns up in the garden at Buckshaw, the crumbling family estate, Flavia is ecstatic. A complex mystery told in Flavia’s knowing (and unknowingly naïve) voice, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is only the first of ten scientific/ literary mysteries set in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s.
Flavia’s complicated family past and relationships are also explored. (More family secrets! I want to hug myself with delight as Flavia would.) The characters and setting are especially beautifully drawn, particularly with regard to Flavia’s sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) and the household help Mrs. Mullet and Dogger. Full of heart and wit, Flavia and her fellow inhabitants of Buckshaw and the village of Bishop’s Lacey are characters you take into your heart and love with all of your might.
Who are some of your favorite female sleuths? It was so hard for me to pick only five!
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.