My love affair with mystery novels happened much in the same way as many love affairs do. I didn't pay attention to them, and then suddenly, there they were, all shiny covers and alluring stories, English manors and cold Nordic police stations, that one person who refused to give up and kept digging until the plot was neatly solved, the murderer put away, the victims free to rest in peace, happy that their deaths have been avenged.
Now, I've read a lot around this genre, and my absolute favourite thing about a crime novel (or TV show, I'm not picky) is when there's a female detective. Sadly, good female detectives—by which I mean not caricatures or super women or Woman Who Is Too Busy For Love And Perfect In Every Other Way—are few and far between. Surprising, because a lot of really good crime writers are, in fact, women. So I made a list of my favourite lady detectives, because sometimes, you need a woman for the job.
1) Miss Marple by Agatha Christie: Obviously, I've got to start with the Queen of Crime, and while most people prefer Christie's little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, mustaches, fancy airs and all, I have a soft spot for Jane Marple. She's not helped along by any of Poirot's privileges, people don't come to her to solve a murder, the police don't offer to give her all their resources, in fact, most of the time, people wish that she'd go away, because they have no use for an interfering old woman at a crime scene. But thanks to the invisibility offered to her because of her age and her gender, Miss Marple is able to get to the bottom of a mystery a lot faster than most people. All she does is strike up idle chit chat with the people involved, tells a story about her village and before you know it, the mystery is solved, and there is Jane, in her rocking chair with her knitting, smiling at you through it all.
2) Kinsey Milhone by Sue Grafton: While Miss Marple is an old fashioned kind of spinster, Kinsey is a thoroughly modern one. (By which I mean, we first meet her in the 1980s and she sort of grows with us.) She has a loathing for small talk and girly things, cuts her hair herself and has one “good black dress” that she takes everywhere and uses to get into fancy parties where she's investigating. Her best friend is her eighty something landlord, who we're told is also ridiculously handsome, and what I like about Grafton's detective is that she's so human through it all—even talking about how difficult it is to be a female detective when you desperately have to pee while you're on the road. Pretty refreshing.
3) Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde: Now Thursday is someone who you're poised to dislike somewhat—she's capable, she's attractive and she's one of those maverick type cops who seems to get away with everything. But, here's the fun part: Thursday's world is a steampunk version of the future and she's a LiteraTec; a literary detective who investigates crimes done to or in the name of literature. In this future, Shakespeare vending machines abound, people can go into novels and alter things and there's all sorts of various crime patrols including the time machine people, the vampire people and the more boring regular old homicide people.
4) Cassie Maddox by Tana French: I was sort of obsessed with Tana French earlier this year, and I began her Dublin Murder Squad series with her second book The Likeness, in which Cassie Maddox appears. Like Kinsey and Thursday, Cassie has to struggle with being a woman in a man's world—especially a man's department as the murder squad is. A chance to go undercover with a group of college students lets Cassie let her hair down a bit, and it's refreshing to watch the girl behind the detective come out, while all the time be drawn into the tight back-and-forth of the narrative.
5) Susan Ryeland by Anthony Horowitz: I was drawn to Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz because it's set in the world of publishing—something very familiar to me. Susan is actually an editor, who has been given this manuscript to clean up and she notices some missing pages. She goes on an investigation—plus murder—in a way only a literary editor can, handing out her card, offering book deals and so on. Lots of references to other murder mystery writers here, but I loved that Susan is so straightforward about being a crime fiction junkie and how that leads her to her investigation.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is a bestselling author - most recently of The One who Swam with the Fishes, the first of the Girls of the Mahabharata series. Meenakshi's previous work includes four novels – two for young adults – and a collection of short stories. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/reddymadhavan