50 Mystery Novels by Women Crime Writers, Read in a Year

  • 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.

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.

Many of the books below are part of the zeitgeist – you’ll see a lot of girls in the title. I’ve also tried to focus on reading some of their antecedents, and you’ll see works on the list from Dorothy Hughes, Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, and other classic women crime writers of mid-century America, plus a couple of golden age works from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. You won’t find many representatives of the tough second-wave protagonists of the 80s and 90s, or many works in translation – both areas, I’m sorry to admit, I neglected in the past year.

You will find quite a few books set in Texas, and some that have yet to be released; both quirks of a bookseller’s reading habits, as we tend to dive deep into the literature of our areas, and often receive early copies of upcoming releases.

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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.

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Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: DARE ME by Megan Abbott

dare meThe Murder In The Afternoon Book Club meeting time has changed! We will now meet on the third Monday of each month at 1 pm on BookPeople’s third floor.

Join us Monday, February 15, at 1 PM on BookPeople’s third floor, for a discussion of Dare Me, by Megan Abbott, who will join us via phone call during the discussion. You can find copies of Dare Me on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

  • Review by Bookseller Molly Odintz

Megan Abbott started off studying noir fiction, and moved over to writing her own, creating several historical crime novels so true to their period, they could have been written in the forties. Next, she took a turn to the contemporary, addressing the same themes of power, competition, sexuality, and obsession showcased by her early novels, but re-contextualizing them for today’s young women. Her last three novels – Dare Me, The End of Everythingand The Fever – have all taken on the dangerous lives of teenage girls, and gone far beyond an after-school special in tackling the real and present dangers and thrills of modern womanhood.

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2016 Preview: Back to Back Events!

  • Post by Molly Odintz

As we wait patiently for the wild mood swings of a Texas winter to die down, we’ve got plenty of events coming up to strike a mystery lover’s fancy – no matter the weather outside. Jeff Abbott ushered in our 2016 events this past Tuesday, speaking and signing his latest thriller, The First Order.

Coming up at the end of the month, Reed Farrel Coleman, a long-time favorite, comes to visit with two new books: Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins,  a Jesse Stone novel, and Where It Hurtsthe first in a new series and our Pick of the Month for January. He’ll be here to speak and sign his latest on Saturday, January 30th, at 5 PM.

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Women In Detective Fiction: A Wider Look


– Post by Molly

At the beginning of March, I contacted many of my favorite women in crime fiction. In honor of Women’s History Month, I asked for a few thoughts on the history of women in crime fiction, the future of crime fiction for female authors, or women’s representation in detective fiction. I also asked for some recommendations to pass on – look out for a thorough list of all the recommendations I got in the next week. I received wonderful responses from Lori Rader-Day, Megan Abbott, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, and Jamie Mason (read her response here), each highlighting the long history of women in crime fiction, the prominent place in the genre of many female authors today, and passing along some great recommendations.

Lori Rader-Day’s debut novel, The Black Hour, came out last year, and she’ll be releasing her next one, Little Pretty Things, in July. Megan Abbott’s most recent work is The Fever, and her books run the gamut from historical plots set in the golden age of noir to, more recently, plots focusing on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Meg Gardiner writes breakneck cyber-thrillers starring extremely capable women. Her latest is Phantom Instinct. Ausma Zehanat Khan recently published her first novel, The Unquiet Dead, to much acclaim.

There is a vast and diverse body of work written by women and shelved in the mystery section – almost an overwhelming amount, when attempting an analysis, especially one written for a blog. Lori Rader-Day, in her response, brought up how “one of the greatest things about crime fiction is how many brilliant women write it. There’s such a long tradition of fantastic women crime writers that I could read for the rest of my life (and that’s my plan) and never catch up.” Meg Gardiner responded, “Women have been the backbone and animating force in crime fiction since the beginning. From Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn, women have defined, deepened, and blown up the genre.” Ausma Zehanat Khan, in her reply, mentioned that “most of the mysteries I read are written by women, and I also think women are very well represented as equals in detective fiction, although possibly not as much in higher ranks, which is likely more a reflection of the real world.” I think that we can all agree – women in crime fiction are here to stay.

Do women write crime fiction differently than men? Ausma Zehanat Khan responded, “Generally speaking, I think women write better detective novels with deeper characterizations and greater empathy, although I’m never really sure that you can generalize.” Women are certainly more likely than their male counterparts to have strong female protagonists, yet many male authors do write powerful and intriguing female protagonists. Lori Rader-Day, after writing “I look forward to anything new by Tana French, Catriona McPherson, Denise Mina, Clare O’Donohue, Sara Gran, and Gillian Flynn,” made sure to mention that “I read male authors, too, of course, and I can be enchanted by a male author who captures a female protagonist well, like Alan Bradley and James Ziskin.”Perhaps, in analyzing fiction, we’ve moved beyond wide generalizations based on gender, and this is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

While women may be well-represented in the ranks of detective novelists today,  not many classic female detective novelists (with certain exceptions, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker and the great Patricia Highsmith) have stayed in circulation. The history of women in crime fiction is long, yet consistently undervalued. Many of those women who helped to originate, develop, and explode the genre of detective fiction are no longer in print. Those who have remained in print are generally from the British tradition of detective fiction, rather than American noir. Others who helped to originate the detective genre have found a home in classics, their history as genre fiction subordinated to their position as literature.

Meg Gardiner, when asked about the history of women in crime fiction, responded: “Hell, go back to the earliest days of great fiction—who wrote the original novel of tension, terror, and adventure? Mary Shelley. She gets credit for sparking science fiction and the horror genre. She’s also a founding force for suspense fiction!” I had contemplated Mary Shelley as an originator of horror, but had never thought of her before as paving the way for thrillers. I’m adding a belated New Year’s resolution to my already long list: I resolve to remember that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is a fine and porous line, and like any definition, fraught with ambiguity.

However, the prognosis for our ability to appreciate classic female detective novelists is good. Megan Abbott, in her discussion of the history of women detective novelists, brought to the fore “the Library of America’s upcoming volumes devoted to female crime writers from the golden age of noir. These volumes will be edited by Sarah Weinman and will finally push back into print some of the true masterpieces of the genre.” (The Library of America’s collection of Women Crime Writers comes out this September. Preorder now.)  Abbott points out in particular the inclusion of “Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Vera Caspary’s Laura, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall and Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. These were books that were wildly successful in their day, and had a huge impact on crime fiction to come, but have been unjustly forgotten. It’s a thrilling development.” That the Library of America has chosen to bring back into print these volumes is a statement of confidence in the canonical status of each writer included in the collection. People have always read the novels of women crime novelists writing at the time, but now is our chance to explore the lesser known classics that paved the way for women writing in crime fiction today.

While many of us fans of crime fiction by women did not grow up reading the classics of female noir, we did benefit from the splintering and diversification of the detective genre in the 1970s and 80s. Not only did the feminist movement spur a vast array of more widely politicized detective fiction by women – this time period also saw a diversification of voices in regards to ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Many of these authors have stayed in print and are still read widely. There is a strong continuum of forward momentum from this point onwards, and women are now near-equally represented in the genre.

The forward momentum of increasing diversity, however, has slowed in the intervening decades, and the representation of authors of color, of any gender, has fallen woefully behind. Ausma Zehanet Khan responded, “What I’d like to see more of in detective fiction is more diversity – more women and men of color in leading roles, and also as writers of detective fiction. I love learning about different perspectives on the world, on crime, and culture. For example, I loved Attica Locke’s ‘The Cutting Season.’ And although I’m starting to see secondary characters who are from diverse backgrounds, there is still a long way to go.”

As a female reader of detective fiction by both male and female writers, I believe the biggest gendered problem in detective fiction right now is not a lack of female authors, but an intensification of violence against women by some male and some female writers.  The detective genre is certainly a violent one, to its core, and gendered violence is a world-wide issue that cannot be simply subsumed to a socialist realism narrative – when I read a detective novel, I want a nutshell version of a realistic society, and that includes violent, gendered crimes. However, I have lost track of the number of detective novels I have read that not only hideously torture and murder women in uncommon-in-real-life ways, but deny those women any kind of voice, spending more time describing a dead body than a vibrant soul, lost to the world and yet deserving of remembrance. Women are not just corpses – they are characters.

The more women writing crime fiction, the less we will see female characters treated as disposable playthings and the more we will see women enacting their own stories and determining their own agency. There are also plenty of male authors out there bucking the trend – writing strong female characters and taking a responsible attitude towards the representation of violence against women. I’d say the future of women in crime fiction – as authors and as characters – is looking pretty darn good.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Megan Abbott

megan abbott
~interviewed by Molly

Megan Abbott’s The Fever is one of the most talked about books of the summer and is the Statesman Selects pick for June. It portrays a tight family of father, son, and particularly daughter caught in the hysteria of a small town when several of the teen girls suffer mysterious seizures.  Though Megan will be in-store with Alison Gaylin, Thursday, June 26 at 7PM, we took the opportunity beforehand to speak with Megan about her new book and the writing process.

Molly O.: I was struck by the similarities between the behavior of the girls in The Fever and the actions of adolescents during the Salem Witch Trials. I was then surprised to learn that you were inspired by a true story. Were you also inspired by the Salem Witch Trials?

Megan Abbott: I’ve always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and have been reading about them since I was a kid, so I’m sure that
was hovering there somewhere. And the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson. All these tales of American small towns or communities under siege, with the assault somehow coming from within. I’ve always loved stories where there’s an unidentifiable danger==and because it’s unidentifiable, everyone projects their own fears and desires onto it. Whatever theory a character has for what’s afflicting these girls says a great deal about the character.

MO: You hit on some edgy, controversial topics (vaccines, pollution, teen sexuality) as your characters theorize about what could be making a group of teenage girls sick. Did you set out to write a novel tapping into the zeitgeist? What are you worried about in the world right now?

MA: No. I guess I don’t really write that way—from an intellectual place. I write more from an emotional place. I have loads of thoughts about
the world (too many!) and how hard it is to be a teen or a parent of a teen, but when I write it comes from a different part of my head. I
follow character, and just keep on digging. The nature of the characters in The Fever—in particularly, this close-knit family of father, son and daughter. I saw them as the three investigators and just followed their paths.

MO: Traditionally, noir fiction has incorporated quite a bit of the “male gaze” in terms of a sexualized way of viewing women through a
male character’s eyes. In The Fever, I thought you did an excellent job of reversing that trope through the character of Deenie’s brother
and the way in which girls at his school approach him as an object of desire. This is just one aspect of your complicated and nuanced
approach to sexuality and sexual agency. Is this a life-long mission, to bring female agency, especially in terms of sexuality, to noir
fiction?

MA: If I’m honest, my only mission is to tell stories that feel true. But I am beyond thrilled with this question—and flattered by it. I really
did see Eli as a kind of “homme fatal”—through no fault of his own (just as it’s not the femme fatale’s fault that males keep falling for her). I really wanted to write about the way girls look at boys. How they foist all kinds of fantasies onto them, just as boys do with girls. And I really wanted the girls in this book to want, to desire… as we all know girls do. I think we’re still so uncomfortable as a culture with girls having sexual desires and acting on them. We either make a joke out of it or make it horror show, instead of just letting it be real, authentic, awkward, overwhelming—all the things that being a teenager is.

MO: Your last few books have all focused on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Why this age group?

MA: I guess because there’s so much rich territory to mine there, and it’s still pretty “under-mined.” That age is so powerful, on the cusp of
adulthood but with all the frenzy of youth. Each day is such a whirlwind of emotion, everything matters so much. It’s the perfect place to find character, story.

MO: You come to noir both as a creator and an academic – a rare combination in today’s world of specialization. Which came first, the
urge to write or to analyze? How would you like to see your own work analyzed?

MA: They’re really two separate parts of my brain—and they never speak to each other! I’ve always done both kinds of writing and thinking, but I never apply my analytical lens to my own work if I can help it. In my case, I think that’s deadly to the creativity. As for how I’d like my
own work analyzed? The real answer is any way any reader likes. There’s no “solution” or “right interpretation.” We all bring our own fascinations and experiences and personal histories to whatever we read, and that’s why reading is so intensely personal an experience. And it’s why it matters so much.


Megan Abbott will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of The Fever now via bookpeople.com, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.

DARE ME Optioned by Fox

Congratulations to our friend Megan Abbott. Her recent book (and our Pick of the Month), Dare Me has been optioned by Fox 2000. It’s no surprise that her noir novel, which takes cheerleading rivalries to the level of Shakespearean backstabbing, caught Hollywood’s eye. I’m sure many young actresses will be fighting for parts, much like the characters in the book fight for rank in the squad.

A shot from our event with Megan & Sean Doolittle.