We love great detectives, no matter who they are and where they hail from.
But at times, we crave the point of view and approach to casework that only a female detective can bring.
The canon of great female literary sleuths include those from a wide variety of countries, eras and ethnicities. However, thrillers featuring female sleuths are still a little harder to find, which is why we decided to compile this list of truly great mysteries and thrillers featuring superstar female protagonists.
In compiling this updated version of our female detective list, our definition of “detective” is wide-ranging.
We have included books featuring:
-amateur sleuths of all variaties
-female police officers
-victimized women seeking justice
-undercover spell casters
In other words, any woman involved with investigating and solving a crime. Based on what we have seen over the past couple of years, there’s a noticeable uptick in women-led crime-solving, especially in the way of amateur sleuths who are by no means trained detectives, but are somehow pushed into a do-or-die quest for the truth.
That makes for great reading.
We’ll update this list from time to time, so feel free to write us your favorites.
The RX for Murder by Sue Hinkin
After the murder of a veteran reporter David Pine, amateteur sleuths Bea Middleton and Lucy Vega are drawn into the likely reason for his death: an in-progress story about big pharma selling generic medicine with little or no active ingredients to the poorest countries, states and counties.
The core of the potential Big Pharma scandal is sleazeball Brandon Doyle. A former LA prosecutor now running for Senate, the deceased reporter not only had him linked to the drug scandal, but also for sexual abuse for minors. In Doyle, author Sue Hinkin has created a villian that readers will simply love to hate.
Pine was so convinced his life was in danger that he dropped a thumb drive with mountains of material to a confidante just hours before his death. Horrified at the thought of more people suffering and dying, and at the thought of Pine’s murder going unsolved, Bea and Lucy get hold of the data – some of which will require the assistance of a Chinese translator – and decide to go undercover.
While Hinkin’s followup to The Mermaid Broker reveals much of the villainy in the book’s early chapters, she creates sweat-inducing tension through the substantial risks her heroines take to right a global wrong. Along the way, Bea and Lucy prove their savvy at persuading others to put their lives on the line as well (Lucy: “This isn’t a movie starring one of your clients. This is the real deal. No theme music, no popcorn, just messy possibilities”).
Those risks are amplified by the humanity Hinkin brings to the duo. That’s especially true for Lucy, an Emmy winner who also teaches photojournalism at Santa Monica High School – all while being a mother. Adding to the considerable weight on her shoulders, Lucy is faced with a personal dilemma that forces her to choose between her life in LA and a new one in New York. The decision adds stress to her friendship with Bea, who becomes increasingly emotional by the possibility of her BFF leaving for good (“I have two exes that’re history, kids who have moved on, and now my best friend is abandoning me”). While Hinkin’s mystery is gripping enough on its own terms, Bea and Lucy’s personal lives take center stage in this poignant story about friendship and loyalty that will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next series installment.
When I Was You by Minka Kent
Minka Kent gives identify theft an entirely new meaning in this thoroughly engrossing novel.
In Minka Kent’s new psychological thriller, assault survivor and landlord Brienne Dougray suffers from crippling memory loss, and relies on tenant Dr. Niall for help.
But soon, Brienne discovers evidence that she has a double. Someone else has her name, her car, her hair, her clothes and even the same social media network. Is this real, or a side-effect of her already disturbing neural issues?
To find out, Brienne must overcome the agoraphobic-like instincts that have kept her a prisoner of her own home. She ventures out into the world to hunt this familiar stranger that goes by her own name.
Kent’s new thriller is gripping from the very first chapter, as Brienne – who tells the story in the first person – recounts the story of her trauma in painful detail. In the audiobook version, narrator Erin deWard successfully captures Brienne’s vulnerability and paranoia without ever becoming whiny.
The vulnerability earned in those early pages creates significant narrative momentum that will propel many readers to finish the book – which weighs in at an economical 282 pages – in just one or two sittings.
The Night Stalker: A Detective Erika Foster Novel
In the dead of a swelteringly hot summer’s night, Detective Erika Foster is called to a murder scene. The victim, a doctor, is found suffocated in bed. His wrists are bound and his eyes bulging through a clear plastic bag tied tight over his head.
A few days later, another victim is found dead, in exactly the same circumstances. As Erika and her team start digging deeper, they discover a calculated serial killer – stalking their victims before choosing the right moment to strike.
The victims are all single men, with very private lives. Why are their pasts shrouded in secrecy? And what links them to the killer?
As a heat wave descends upon London, Erika will do everything to stop the Night Stalker before the body count rises, even if it means risking her job.But the victims might not be the only ones being watched… Erika’s own life could be on the line.
It’s difficult to point to any one thing that makes Erika Foster is such a great literary detective. After all, there are plenty of smart, quirky female detectives in the genre. But Bryndza’s gift for deep characterization and vulnerability are the key, making her come fully to life on the page.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Novel
Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (the duo that first starred in The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo) return in the highly anticipated follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
With the series’ original author sadly deceased, does the series lose steam?
Against all odds, it may in fact be the best book in the series.
In this adrenaline-charged thriller (written by David Lagercrantz, not the late Stieg Larsson), genius-hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist face a dangerous new threat and must again join forces.
Late one night, Blomkvist receives a phone call from a trusted source claiming to have information vital to the United States.
The source has been in contact with a young female super hacker–a hacker resembling someone Blomkvist knows all too well.
The implications are staggering.
Blomkvist, in desperate need of a scoop for Millennium, turns to Lisbeth for help.
She, as usual, has her own agenda.
It Ends With Her by Brianna Labuskes
Redheaded readers may be looking for a dye job after finishing Brianna Labuskes’ terrifying FBI thriller.
Troubled FBI special agent Clarke Sinclair knows that serial killer Simon Cross preys on redheads.
She also knows that Cross likes to play mind games.
The one he’s playing right now has taken Sinclair all over the United States.
Sadly, no good deed goes unpunished. The moment Sinclair discovers a victim, Cross preys on a new one.
The twisted game changes when a blonde woman is kidnapped in upstate New York. As you might imagine from the title, Sinclair’s own life may soon be on the line.
Is It Ends with Her as predictable as its title might indicate? Sadly, yes.
But fortunately, Labuskes is excellent at building suspense.
She also does an excellent job of developing her protagonist, Clarke, who has more layers than an onion.
Some readers may not be ready to embrace such an emotionally disturbed protagonist, but that was the x-factor for this reader.
The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
A truly magical take on the secret society thriller.
Yale’s freshman class may look homogenous, but there’s at least one outlier within: Galaxy “Alex” Stern.
Alex has survived attempted murder, loser boyfriends and a hippie upbringing.
Lightning strikes when she receives a full ride to Yale.
But nothing in life is free, and Alex’s sponsors ask her to monitor Yale’s secret societies.
Anyone who follows politics has heard about Yale’s Skull and Bones society, whose members included President George Bush and Secretary of State John Kerry.
The rumors pale in comparison to what novelist Leigh Bardugo has dreamed up in The Ninth House.
The book feels literally haunted, its plot brimming with black magic and suspense as thick as Turkish coffee.
In Alex, Bardugo has created a character that is at once transparent and vulnerable, while still managing to surprise with her capabilities.
Fans of Night Circus will love The Ninth House.
The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
In yet another gripping crime thriller by one of the best in the business, two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind.
Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy small-town family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father — Pikeville’s notorious defense attorney — devastated.
And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.
Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself — the ideal good daughter.
But when violence comes to Pikeville again — and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatized — Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case that unleashes the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress.
Because the shocking truth about the crime that destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried forever.
Or will it?
Note that although attorneys feature prominently in the cast, this isn’t a legal thriller per se. That’s a good thing, as Slaughter delivers one of the most suspenseful novels of her career.
Freeze Before Burning by Nikki Stern
A serial killer is at work in New York City. The three seemingly unrelated victims – a priest, a librarian and a bartender – have been forced to swallow dry ice. And we’re not talking about a trace amount. Somehow, investigators believe, the victims may have somehow ingested several pounds of it.
Lieutenant Sam Tate is way out of her jurisdiction when a chance meeting with an old acquaintance draws her into the investigation. As news of the case goes mainstream, one of her colleagues back in Maryland quips, “What I don’t get is how you got yourself in the middle of a possible serial killing spree while on vacation.” One of the enduring rules of crime fiction, going back as far as the great Agatha Christie, is that detectives can never truly take a vacation. In Sam’s case, whether she realizes it or not, her “vacation” is actually a mission to solve a tragedy that she’s carried with her all her life.
As a little girl in New York, Sam attended a wedding with her family where a mass murderer killed or critically injured all but two guests, including her entire family. While author Nikki Stern has rendered Sam a “famous serial-killer-catching” pro, she’s also a human being attempting to make sense of the most tragic event of her life. Before she discovers the case that will soon make headlines, she visits the house she lived in as a child. She eats dinner alone in her “dilapidated rental cottage on a dead-end road.” For all her talent as an investigator, Sam’s vulnerability is what makes her so compelling. That’s why it’s so satisfying when, eventually, she begins making connections missed by investigators decades earlier.
At a time when most writers simply ignore the COVID pandemic, Stern uses it as an opportunity to illustrate the awkwardness (a handshake being replaced by a “cross between Star Trek and Wakanda Forever”) and obstacles (the difficulty in recognizing suspects in a library when all wore masks) the pandemic brought into society. Stern’s insights into this era complete a wholly tactile world that adds tension and suspense to an already riveting whodunnit.
Freeze Before Burning is a perfect introduction to first-time Nikki Stern readers. The novel works both as part of a series and as a stand alone mystery. Highly recommended.
The Hiding Girl by Dorian Box
When two predators come to 12-year-old Emily Calby’s home asking to siphon gasoline, she immediately senses what her mother does not – their lives are in imminent danger. Only Emily escapes.
Armed with extraordinary powers of perception and five-thousand dollars that her father had stashed in the garage, she goes on the run. A born survivalist, Emily prowls unlocked cars at night, finding a stun gun, a knife, makeup and a Stephen King book. She makes it to a sketchy neighborhood in Memphis, where she pays a professional counterfeiter named Lucas in cash for a fake ID, becoming sixteen-year-old Alice Regina Miller from Chattanooga, TN.
Like Emily, Lucas’s entire family is dead. The two bond, and he becomes an unlikely ally in her quest for justice. After nothing comes of the anonymous tips Emily sends the Sheriff back home, she receives an unexpected message from the FBI to her fake email address. The special agent in charge of the investigation wants to bring her back to Georgia. But for Emily, there’s far too much at stake to simply head home to be placed with a foster family. Only justice will give her peace.
In Emily, Author Dorian Box has created a rarity – a teenage protagonist that is at once sympathetic, vulnerable and largely fearless. Made unusually mature for her age after losing her father in an accident, Emily is an old soul in a way that is both tragic and inspiring. And while her plight gives her little time for grief, those brief moments of raw emotion resonate hugely. This sharp characterization within a fast-paced work of suspense makes The Hiding Girl one of the year’s most exciting series openers.
Exposure: A Crazy Amy Thriller
The second entry in Rose Edmunds’ Crazy Amy series has the former finance executive rising from the ashes of her wasted life. The novel opens at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Amy has found a high perch from which to release twenty thousand in cash, which floats down to a crowd of anti-capitalist protesters down on the street. Despite her contempt for the “dumb little peasants” below, the act is an important alcohol-fueled symbol of her break with the past.
After this manic episode, Amy enters rehab. Her stay is interrupted when the suspicious death of a former colleague, John Venner, hits the news. Amy is watching the report live as her own name is linked to the investigation, followed by these words: “To add to the mystery, Amy Robinson has disappeared.”
When Amy leaves rehab to attend the funeral, she quickly finds herself immersed in the quest for answers that could not only solve Venner’s murder, but eventually, save her own life.
After Edmunds’ breathless series debut, Concealment, we find an author writing at the top of her game. The loathing and vitriol that makes Amy so unique among contemporary sleuths is still here, but it’s all the more biting and delicious now that Amy is “done with capitalism.” At times, her struggle to leave her past behind is absolutely heartbreaking, but dark levity reigns as her investigation takes her from one “charmless moron” to another. Her journey finds herself decoding a complex web of deceit, but credit Edmunds for keeping us in Amy’s head – and even in her notes – as she deftly works her process.
Above all, readers will relish the fact that Crazy Amy will do anything – anything! – to solve the murder, and that is what makes Exposure a true page-turner.
Darkroom by Mary Maddox
What would you do if your best friend went missing? That’s the compelling question at the core of Darkroom, which puts Boulder resident Kelly Durrell in the role of anyone who has ever realized that they are all that stands between someone they care about and tragedy.
Day Randall, named after a 70s rock band, is a freelance photographer who has been living rent-free in Durrell’s condo. Given Day’s bohemian lifestyle, there’s little evidence that she hasn’t simply moved on. But after the cops show little progress in the investigation, Kelly – a museum employee with no formal investigative skills – tries to make sense of Day’s circle of associates, including the Helms, a family of wealthy business magnates. Kelly’s investigation takes a sudden turn when she’s given a fragment of a road map to a remote mountain estate. Soon after, she realizes that the trouble that found her friend may well find her as well.
In a genre full of heroines that seem entirely too clever and smug, Maddox’s Kelly is a hugely relatable breath of fresh air. Tenacious, but hardly reckless nor extraordinarily brave, Kelly simply does what we hope anyone would do for us, even as she finds herself faced with a nightmare underworld of predators and prey.
In terms of subject matter and tone, Darkroom is a close cousin to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or TV’s True Detective. A gifted wordsmith, Maddox uses the Colorado landscape to great effect in creating suspense (“Highway 119 tracked Boulder Creek upstream through bottlenecks and blasted rock, sudden curves and harrowing switchbacks, rising more than three thousand feet in sixteen miles.”) Even in a world where technology seems to have erased personal privacy, Maddox reminds us that we still live in a world where doing evil, and hiding it, is disturbingly easy. Highly recommended.
Hide and Seek by Mary Burton
A truly enlightened FBI thriller that stands out from the pack.
Mary Burton’s latest thriller picks up where Cut and Run left off, as Special Agent Macy Crow is recovering from brutal hit and run.
She’s laser-focused on her career, with her sights set on the FBI’s elite profiling team.
To get there, she volunteers to investigate the death of a high school girl who had been missing until her bones were recently discovered.
Of course, Crow discovers a critical link between her new case and others.
Is a serial killer at work?
Fans of FBI procedurals will be delighted by Burton’s twisty plot, but it’s the tangible sense of place and characterization that makes this one stand out.
Fans of Netflix’s Mindhunter will appreciate her story of a budding profiler who edges ever closer to solving a case while trying not to become a victim herself.
Swollen Identity by Rich Leder
Is it even possible to be too beautiful, seductive and rich? That’s what New York private detective Kate McCall thinks of her newest client, Brooke Barrington, who is suffering from a case of identity theft. With a net worth of four billion dollars and cover girl looks, it’s easy to see why her identity is a hot commodity.
And here’s the twist: Brooke Barrington has an identical twin sister. Kate’s reaction when she finds out: “Sorry, I just put my pepper-sprayed friend in a cab, and this margarita has enough tequila to kill a bear. Did you just say you had a twin sister named Bailey?”
The second installment in Rich Leder’s McCall & Company series finds Kate settling into the Private Investigation firm she inherited from her father, whose murder is yet unsolved. Fortunately, she hasn’t abandoned her career as a way-off-Broadway actress. She once again uses her considerable acting chops to go in disguise during the course of her investigations, as well as the unconventional tactics of her melodramatic acting troupe, the Schmidt and Parker Players.
Leder’s masterfully balanced plot has Kate pursuing both cases while also engaged in two highly entertaining romances. Just after writing a retainer check, Brooke – or was it Bailey? – stuns Kate by laying a seriously hot kiss on her. Kate doesn’t think of herself as a “girl-on-girl” kind of girl, but the attraction is undeniable. Meanwhile, she develops a mutual attraction with commercial-real-estate-broker Peter Mills. In another delicious twist, Kate and Peter fall for each other while Kate is in disguise. These explorations into her sexuality are filled with comedy, but they also serve as an effective character arc for Kate that series fans will appreciate.
Is Kate’s client really Brooke Barrington? Will she edge closer to solving her father’s murder? Which side of the team is Kate playing for, anyhow? We highly recommend that you read Swollen Identity to find out.