by: Emily (the great gumshoe) Hinn
I’ve loved mystery books since I was a kid. I’ve read allllllll of the Nancy Drew books (and I do mean all of them, most of them twice), The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Boxcar Kids. My favorites are the mystery series, where you can follow a beloved character throughout their crime solving life, hoping from one plot to the next. As a fully-grown kid, I still love mystery books. There’s nothing better than a tried-and-true whodunit. And, with no shortage of mystery series to read, my bookshelf (and my to-be-read list) are each beyond full. I’ve made a *short* list of my favorite mystery authors for you here (who just so happen to be brilliant women). Fear not, my favorite male mystery writers, you’ll get your two minutes of fame in another article! Here they are, in no particular order (except the first one, she’s definitely the long-reigning queen supreme), my favorite female crime novelists:
Often dubbed “the Queen of Crime,” her sixty plus books have sold more than 2 billion copies, second only to Shakespeare. An incredible, albeit painfully shy, chiefly self-taught lady began her writing career on a dare. Ms. Christie was challenged by her sister to write a story, and a brilliant story ensued. Although it took four years (and six rejections) before being published, the story, Mr. Poirot, and her burgeoning career were worth the wait. Most of her books are set just after World War One, among the British upper class. Dame Christie’s myriad novels are immensely popular as film adaptations on both the big and small screens. To date, her novels have been produced into over thirty movies and assuredly more will follow.
Where to Start: Book 1 – The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Here we are introduced to both Dame Christie’s writing style and technique, as well as her most famous character, Hercule Poirot.
Select Reading: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The British Crime Writer’s Associated “best crime novel ever.” Dame Christie’s third novel, it features the infamous Hercule Poirot solving the murder of his friend, Roger Ackroyd.
Honorary Mention: Murder on the Orient Express
A classic novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Perhaps her most famous, this novel has been adapted into several successful movie and television versions, the most recent an American film from 20th Century Fox released in 2017.
Known as the author of “The Alphabet Series.” She famously died before she could finish the series, and her family states that as far as they are concerned, “the alphabet now ends with Y.” Grafton is unusual in that she kept the passage of time in her novels precisely. Early in her career she worked as a screenwriter, adapting two of Agatha Christie’s novels for television. Her friendly, breezy dialogue and prose make her a favorite among readers, having been published in over 28 countries. Here are my suggestions, respectfully submitted, Emily Hinn (ok, you won’t get this corny joke unless you read her series, so get reading!).
Where to Start: Book 1 – A is for Alibi
Here we are introduced to Kinsey Milhone, a female private detective in the city of Santa Teresa. Sue Grafton said that she conceived parts of her plots while dreaming of ways to kill her then-husband while going through a particularly bitter divorce. Definitely a woman you don’t want to mess around with!
Select Reading: Y is for Yesterday
The (unfortunately) last of Grafton’s novels in arguably her best. As Kinsey ages and grows, so does Grafton’s talent. Although a lurid premise, Grafton manages to keep the novel to her usual high standards, without resorting to gruesome imagery.
Honorary Mention: J is for Judgement
Without distractions in the narrative, we get completely inside Kinsey’s head and really get to know how witty and resourceful she is.
MARY HIGGINS CLARK
As Agatha Christie is known as the “Queen of Crime,” Mary Higgins Clark is dubbed the “Queen of Suspense.” With over 50 published works (many with strong women protagonists!), she has the genre thoroughly mapped out. Although she did not start out as a mystery writer, first producing radio scripts, and later trying her hand at historical fiction, she quickly found her niche in suspense. Her first novel sold for an initial sum of $3,000… her second novel sold for $1.5 million. Mary Higgins Clark has been so successful that her publisher, Simon & Schuster, set up an award in her honor, the “Mary Higgins Clark Award” which is awarded annually to authors of suspense fiction.
Where to Start: Book 1 – Where are the Children?
Mary Higgins Clark first foray into suspense, this novel centers on a presumed guilty mother who has lost two sets of her children. Did she murder them or was she framed?
Select Reading: On the Street Where You Live
With a flash back into the life of a serial killer in the late 1800s, and a segue back to present day, this novel combines several of Mary Higgins Clark’s signature styles while maintaining a taut plot line.
Honorary Mention: Weep No More My Lady
Mary Higgins Clark tries her hand at a character series, bringing married couple Willy and Alvirah Meehan to the forefront as an unlikely sleuthing team. This series spans over ten books, but this is the one that started it all.
A British mystery writer, Phyllis Dorothy James was dubbed Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. Although P.D. James did not publish her first novel until her early forties, she still managed to publish almost twenty full length novels during her writing career. She is best known for her series featuring Adam Dalgliesh. James is set apart from her contemporaries in that she includes more social examination and critique in her writing, and has been quoted as saying she would sacrifice the detective element in order to improve her story. James tends to write at a more sophisticated level than some of her peers, as she yearns to get her story across, with some commenting that her plot tempo is often plodding, while other reviewers call her timing deliberate. I have found that occasionally I have to break out the dictionary, but that’s a bonus for me!
Where to Start: Book 1 – Cover Her Face
P.D. James first novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh follows the Detective Chief Inspector through his investigation on who killed the family maid, Sally. A process of elimination leads the reader to the culmination of this tale.
Select Reading: The Children of Men
A dystopian novel set in the future (which happens to be in the not-so-distant future of 2021), this novel was adapted into a movie in 2006. In a pointed social critique, James deviates from her typical detective novel.
Honorary Mention: Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James has picked up the tale of Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice six years after Austen’s novel left off. There has been a murder (obviously) and a novel filled with familiar characters.
A modern Canadian mystery author, Louise Penny has received the Agatha (Christie) Award five separate times in her writing career. Her initial foray into writing was with a historical novel. Finding the novel difficult to write, she soon switched to the mystery genre and found her calling. Since 2005, her works have focused on the life and detective skills of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, often in the fictional quaint Quebec village of Three Pines. Her recurring cast of characters make each book a familiar foray into her mysterious world. I stumbled across her works one day and read them all in rapid succession.
Where to Start: Book 1 – Still Life
The introductory book featuring Armand Gamache and his team of investigators. Penny’s skillful story telling and character background illumination set this series in motion. This novel was made into a tv movie in 2013.
Select Reading: The Brutal Telling
This fifth installment points the finger at one of the familiar town characters. This novel weaves several plot lines together for a extraordinary novel where the reader is left to confront their own preconceive notions.
Honorary Mention: A Great Reckoning
As one of her most recent novels, Penny takes us back to the village of Three Pines, where we get a deeper look into the internal prejudices of Gamache and his struggle to overcome them. The self awareness of Penny’s characters is inspirational.