These books started appearing around 1930. They sport the name of Carolyn Keene as the author, but in reality they’ve been written by many ghostwriters and invented by a publisher who wanted the female equivalent of the Hardy Boys. It falls under Young Adult Fiction, and for my purposes, it’s not necessary to single out one particular book, for the quality of each story is really unimportant. Yes, I said that. Nancy Drew was a normal, clean-cut (when was the last time you heard that phrase?) 16-year-old girl who happened to be a detective. The series was incredibly popular and still is today. When kids grow up reading about and adoring a teenage female sleuth, they’re more prone to accept—even crave—books about adult women detectives.
Lisbeth is the female protagonist in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s the first of the five-book Stieg Larsen Millennium series, of which he wrote three before he passed away. Lisbeth is about as far as you can get from young Nancy Drew. Bisexual, tattooed, defiant, and capable of violence when pushed, she’s a master computer hacker who uses her skills to track criminals and anyone who’s hurt her. A terrible childhood haunts Lisbeth, making her naturally asocial and wary of people—but don’t try to wrong her. On a job which included hacking Mikael Blomkvist’s computer, Mikael discovers the hack and enlists Lisbeth in researching the Vanger family. As the pair eventually uncovers two murders, they also begin a complicated romance. Lisbeth is a fascinating character and makes Larsen’s book pop.
Lawrence H. Levy
I know, I know, she’s my creation, but Mary is truly unique and fits in perfectly here. She’s a woman with modern views born in late 19th century Brooklyn, a world in which women were second-class citizens. Although I’ve crafted her character, she’s based on a real woman who was hired by the Brooklyn Police Department—when there weren’t yet policewomen—to help sleuth a high-profile murder. Thus sprung my first book in the series, Second Street Station, in which Mary deals with iconic figures such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and J.P. Morgan. In the second book, Brooklyn On Fire, she goes out on her own as a private detective as she investigates murder and corruption surrounding New York’s annexing of Brooklyn. The newest book in the series, Last Stop In Brooklyn, out this month, features iconic figures Teddy Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, and Andrew Carnegie as Mary chases after a Jack-the-Ripper-style murderer. Each book deals with topics still very much in the news today: women’s rights, gay rights, xenophobia, racism, etc. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mma Precious Ramotswe
Alexander McCall Smith
Precious Ramotswe is the female protagonist in the highly successful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, which is up to 18 books and fits comfortably into the “unique” category. Mma Ramotswe lives in Botswana and starts her own detective agency. She deals with a wide range of cases including murder, kidnapping, and fraud, and some of the characters can be quirky. Life in Africa is portrayed intricately as Mma Ramotswe goes about her work and also contends with tragedies within her own life. Besides being well-written, it spawned an HBO series.
Last Stop in Brooklyn
Lawrence H. Levy
Okay, let me get this out of the way first: “favorite” might have a clear meaning when parents are referring to one of their children, but as far as novels are concerned, it can be an ambiguous word. To some, it designates best-written, to others it’s most original, and still others think of it as most popular. I’ll leave that kind of judgment to critics and to the public. (God knows authors have to deal enough with opinions and sales data.)
In the case of my favorite literary female detectives, I’ve named an eclectic group, partially for their differences and also because of their influence on the genre. For what used to be mainly a men’s club, the female detective novel has been slowly gaining steam over the years, and I applaud its progress. Let’s face it—it doesn’t matter to the criminals who capture them. Busted is busted. I hope never to join the incarcerated class, but in my dreams, I see the female detective arresting me with a bit more panache.
Featured image: Elsa Jenna; Author Photo: © Fran Levy