31 Crime Novels by Women: A New Year’s Resolution Progress Report in Honor of Women’s Equality Day

  • Post by Molly Odintz

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start.

Minotaur Books Created This Stunning Image to Celebrate Women's Equality Day
Minotaur Books created this stunning image in celebration of Women’s Equality Day (this year, Friday, August 26th).

With my yearly New Year’s Resolutions, most of which I will never revisit, I usually come up some kind of reading project, based around genres, authors, or settings I’ve neglected. 2015’s goal? Best not mentioned, as I miserably failed in my efforts to complete it. 2016’s reading goal? Read fifty books by women, and if possible, fifty works of crime fiction by women; not just new releases, but also classic noir and domestic suspense. With the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s, we’ve entered a new era of publisher and reader support for crime fiction classics by women.

This year, to my surprise, I’m a bit further on the path to completing my reading goal, so time to brag and share it with you all, despite my failure to complete it as of yet. Hey, I’ve got four more months left, so why not put the cart before the horse and smugly tell you all about my accomplishments? After all, I’m 31 books in, 31 crime novels by women that I can now confidently recommend in the store and on the internet, because I have read and enjoyed them. Before I (prematurely) rest on my laurels, I’d like to trace the origins of this mighty goal.

Those of you who follow the blog might express surprise that I felt the need to assign myself this goal. In the blogosphere, I’ve reviewed and promoted just as many crime novels by women as by men. That doesn’t just happen naturally.

In my personal reading history, I’ve always listed towards the perspectives of male writers, who seemed to have a greater claim on the category of “cool.” I judged women’s literature as “chick lit,” and stereotyped works of literature by women as overly concerned with topics that did not interest me, including children, love, marriage, aging, and subtle competition. Male writers, in contrast, seemed to write about violence, smoking, and not caring – perfect for a teenage me, who wanted spare, depressing prose.

College brought with it a host of dark narratives by women exploring the terror of marriage, the horror of childbirth, the intensity of female friendship, and the trap of love. I reframed my compass to believe in the dark power of womanhood, but had yet to find that power in crime fiction. The crime novels I devoured from the sixth floor of the Perry Casteneda Library, pristine and furious, were far from the humble, dusty golden age paperbacks my mother and sister had gulped down much of my life.

After college, shiftless, I worked my way through all those dusty dollar reads. I read and then re-read my sister’s Laurie R. Kings and Cara Blacks, and all of my mother’s P. D. James and Martha Grimes, and suddenly, inexplicably, I fell in love with mysteries by women. When I started here at BookPeople, I met colleagues with unabashed, semi-exclusive interest in the narratives of women. I also began to realize just how intentional a reader must be, especially within genre fiction, to reach gender parity in their reading selections. The number of times I’ve said “no” to my own urge to read a book by a male author this year probably exceeds the number of times I’ve said “yes” to reading a book by a woman.

I’ve still ended up reading about half and half this year, even with the New Year’s Resolution. Yet we live in interesting times – with the continued success of twin bestsellers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, the publishing industry has greenlit innumerable narratives starring unreliable or unlikeable female narrators, and the shelves are packed with complex inquiries by women crime writers into the psychology and subtleties of violence.

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start. There’s no particular order to the list below, although you’ll find that many are new releases this year. I’ve read and enjoyed every one of the books listed below, and project or no project, I hope y’all enjoy these reads just as much!

  1. The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, trans. Alison Anderson – A French novelist’s take on 1980s Argentina, in which a woman’s deadly fall leads to the imprisonment of her therapist husband, who then enlists the help of a client to find out the truth.
  2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – A classic work of romantic suspense, in which a young woman fears the long shadow cast by her husband’s first wife and the sinister intentions of his housekeeper.
  3. Security by Gina Wohlsdorf – A slasher novel, told from the perspective of a luxury hotel’s video cameras as a killer stalks its halls.
  4. Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch – An alternative history of Israel and East Germany, in which a Jewish state is established in Saxony. An archivist prepares a documentary for the anniversary of her state’s founding as mysterious clues about her husband’s murder point to disturbing answers.
  5. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – Civil rights attorney and former activist Jay Porter takes on big business and political intrigue as he works to protect Houston’s African-American community and its allies from sinister forces.
  6. Pleasantville by Attica Locke – Jay Porter, decades later, defends a young man accused of murder in a case with vast ramifications for the the future of politics in the prosperous African-American community of Pleasantville.
  7. Good as Gone by Amy Gentry – Long after the disappearance of Julie Whitaker’s daughter, a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to the missing girl arrives on her doorstep claiming to be her returned child. The Whitaker’s are ecstatic at their daughter’s return, yet Julie suspects there may be more to the young woman’s story…
  8. Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg – After the murder of her childhood friend, a bored barista traverses the alien landscapes of Houston’s highways in search of the killer, with more than a little hedonism to round out this sultry gem of a novel.
  9. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry – A woman seeks her sister’s killer and unearthes dangerous small town secrets in rural England.
  10. Murder on the Quai by Cara Black – Aimee Leduc’s first case! This one should please series fans and new initiates, as we follow Aimee through her final days of med school and a case involving Nazi gold and family secrets.
  11. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – I know, I should have read this two years ago. I know all of you already know this, but man, that book is messed up. For a case study of how two people can destroy each other, read this book.
  12. The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin – A woman recently released from prison finds a job with a private eye just starting out. The two work together to build a practice and tackle cases big and small in 1970’s Beaumont.
  13. The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King – Although I love all the books in the series, this one might be my new favorite. Despite the provocative title, most of King’s latest tells an alternative version of Mrs. Hudson’s backstory. Dickens meets Thackeray for a rollicking 19th century adventure.
  14. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers – Sayers’ send-off of the petty jealousies of those in advertising. Wit, sarcasm, and a murder – the perfect Golden Age text!
  15. The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith – Highsmith loved animals a lot more than humans, and here’s the proof. Each story in the collection is told from the perspective of an animal, most of whom  end up (justifiably) murdering a human.
  16. The Assistants by Camille Perri – I file this one under the category of heist novel. Several underpaid assistants, saddled with student debt, devise an ingenious plan to pay off their loans with a little help from the company expense fund.
  17. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman – A prosecutor returns to her father’s home after her husband’s death, and quickly takes on a murder case with profound implications for a different crime in the town, thirty years before.
  18. The Trespasser by Tana French – French’s latest Dublin Police Squad installment. A woman with seemingly no personality is murdered, and it’s up to Detective Antoinette Conway to brush off sexual harrassment from her department while digging for the truth. Out in October – Pre-order now! 
  19. Maestra by L. S. Hilton – As steamy a mixture of art history and sex as The Thomas Crown Affair, with a much darker message about the power of duplicity.
  20. Wolf Road by Beth Lewis – Elka discovers her guardian is a killer, and flees from him in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, getting help on the way from a wolf and a worldly young woman.
  21. Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer – In this fairy-tale-cum-mystery, after a young girl’s kidnapping, her mother goes quietly insane, while her daughter battles dark forces and twisted attitudes.
  22. The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan – Her second in her community policing series has sexy poetry-quoting Esa Khattack in a bind, as the Canadian government forces him to infiltrate a terrorist group whose charismatic leader has gotten unconformatly close to Khattack’s sister.
  23. Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood – After an elderly woman is flung from a train, Phryne Fisher takes on the case to relieve a spot of boredom, and enjoys a good frolic in between seeking clues.
  24. The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis (included in the Library of America collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940sedited by Sarah Weinman) – This may be one of the earliest and most fascinating “murder on a college campus” mysteries. Read it for the plot, and also the sweaters. Such collegiate sweaters.
  25. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (included in the Library of America collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940sedited by Sarah Weinman)
  26. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson – Partially a true crime story of the murder of Nelson’s aunt, Jane, in the late 1960s, and the trial of her aunt’s murderer decades later, and partly a haunting expose of society’s obsession with the murders of young, beautiful white women.
  27. The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem – When a corpse is discovered in the back alleys of Mecca, the police investigator assigned to the case becomes romantically obsessed with the corpse. Alem’s narrative shifts between two women, one of whom escapes the neighborhood, and one of whom dies in its streets, keeping the reader guessing.
  28. Dare Me by Megan Abbott – Abbott’s cheerleader noir uses soldier-inspired language to great effect as a new coach interrupts the complex dynamics of the team and propels them to either victory or doom.
  29. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – This one’s a gymnastics noir, as a heartthrob’s death tears apart a tight-knit athletic community on the cusp of seeing their star head to the Olympics.
  30. The Night She Disappeared by April Henry – Two teens work to solve a series of disappearances associated with their humble pizza parlor.
  31. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis – In a hotel known for the glamorous models and secretaries who once called it home, a journalist investigates a mysterious attack that occurred in the 1950’s.

You can find each of the books listed above on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

2 thoughts on “31 Crime Novels by Women: A New Year’s Resolution Progress Report in Honor of Women’s Equality Day

  1. Don’t you think it was your choice of male writers that gave you the impression that all male writers write about smoking, violence and not caring? Can’t pick out a handful out of centuries’ worth of literature to point to as the exceptions? Do male writers have a monopoly on depressing prose? Do you imply that all female writers whether good or not have to be supported by virtue of their sex? Tell that to the talented female writers of earlier eras, who made it on their own in much harder times, who got our support because as the saying goes, ‘cream rises to the top.’

  2. Thank you so much for your honest and passionate reaction to this post. I am responding as the author of the post, not as the organization I write for at large.

    I absolutely agree that the gaps in my reading history do not correspond to gaps in the history of women’s literature. This is, of course, a post specifically about the mystery genre, although classic literature by men does frequently fall into the category of war stories. Of course there are more than a handful of exceptions to this rule – plenty of men write about family, plenty of women write about violence – and the internal bias that many possess regarding the separate spheres of male and female authorship deserves acknowledgement. That, precisely, is what I hoped for this post to address.

    As far as support for writers goes, my post, like most approaches to feminism, is not about placing women authors above male authors, but simply working to achieve more gender parity in my own readership, and improving my ability to recommend a wide variety of authors to curious readers who are looking for just the right thing to read next. I support good books, by women or by men – their literary quality is paramount.

    Women authors are, however, frequently under-reviewed compared to male authors with a similar quality of work and size of fan base.
    As this article in the Guardian points out (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/07/male-writers-continue-dominate-literary-criticism-vida-study-finds), “women buy two-thirds of books sold but magazine reviews are centred on male authors and critics .” “Cream rises to the top” is a bit of a statement in a vacuum, ignoring the societal mechanisms that sent that cream to the top while keeping the coffee down (to stretch the analogy.) A book can succeed because of its high quality – but first, that book must be noticed, reviewed, and supported in a hundred other ways.

    Please send along more comments, that we might continue this fruitful and creative discussion!

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