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.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: DARE ME by Megan Abbott

MysteryPeople Pick for August: Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Reviewed by: Scott M.

Megan Abbott proves how malleable noir fiction is. In her first books, she approached the postwar setting and the genre’s other tropes with a feminine perspective (and I don’t mean “girlie”; you don’t get any cute romances or crying with Megan’s characters). She also honed in on the way noir portrays people driven by their emotions. The approach found its perfect pitch in last year’s The End Of Everything, set in the Detroit suburbs of the nineteen-eighties with a thirteen-year-old girl who discovers disturbing neighborhood secrets when her best friend goes missing. Abbott’s latest, Dare Me, takes the genre known to be about outsiders and losers and drops it in the middle of an in-crowd, a high school cheerleading squad.

It may seem like an idea ripe for satire, but Abbott dispels that notion in the first chapter. She lets you know these young women are both driven and formidable. They’re as tough and tenacious as any PI or mean street criminal and can be as alluring as a femme fatale. Part of what drives them is their search for that fine balance between standing out and fitting in. A pecking order has been established within the squad. One of the strongest bonds is between the main character and narrator, Addy, and the squad captain, Beth.

A new coach, Collette French, upends the order. Coach French is young and exciting to the girls, especially Addy. It’s not long before her attention to Addy strikes fissures in the relationship between Addy and Beth. As Addy hangs out with the coach at her home, we see a wife and mother clinging to her high school life, when she was somebody. It drives Coach French into an affair with a young marine. When the soldier is found dead, secrets, alliances, and deceptions build.

Some will probably compare Dare Me to The End Of Everything, both sharing teen heroines and a modern setting. It also has much in common with Abbott’s hardboiled Queenpin, which is the story of a young bookkeeper being taught the criminal ropes by a been-around-the-block woman in an unnamed gambling town. They share a terse style and the various emotions involved in the mentor/protégé relationship. The book is also reminiscent of Robert Cormier’s young adult noir novels like I Am The Cheese and The Chocolate War, which depict the rawness of teen isolation and tribalism. Abbott, however, gets more complex, and goes deeper and darker.

The two books also differ in the way they look at emotions. The End Of Everything looks at unbridled feelings and the dark places they can carry you.Dare Me is about emotion that is so focused and driven toward a a goal or person that it creates blinders. Both are dangerous.

It’s been said that noir is a look at the short cut to the American dream. Dare Me looks past the superficial goals of money, sex, and power and examines the dichotomy of both being accepted and standing out, as well as what it takes to be number one. God help any other number that gets in the way.

MysteryPeople welcomes Megan Abbott to BookPeople to speak about & sign Dare Me on Thursday, August 2 at 7pm. Abbott will be joined by author Sean Doolittle. Austin’s own Jesse Sublett will serenade us with a few murder ballads, and we’ll have complimentary refreshments.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is without a doubt one of my favorite current crime fiction authors. She pushes the boundaries like no other. Her latest, Dare Me, is a noir tale set in a cheerleading squad. We’re all excited to be hosting her here Thursday, August 2nd at 7p with another great author, Sean Doolittle. As you can tell from this Q&A, she’s not only one of the most talented authors out there, she’s also one of the smartest.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to the world of cheerleading for a noir story?

MEGAN ABBOTT: I always think the seed for the next book lies in the last one and in The End of Everything there’s a character who’s a serious high school field hockey player. I started watching high school girls play and was so dazzled by their intensity on the field. They looked like warriors to me. That led me to cheerleading, the most dangerous sport for girls. Today’s cheerleaders are deeply competitive and their willingness to take risks fascinated me. To put themselves in bodily danger. I started thinking about it as this perfect terrain to explore female power, friendship, appetites, desire, ambition.

MP: Besides Coach, who you could argue hasn’t completely grown up, adults have a limited appearance and not much dialog. Did you design the book to step out of the cheer squad as little as possible?

MA: Yes. I guess to me they’re absent presences. When you’re a teenager, your world is your peers and when you’re involved in something as deeply as these girls are with their squad I think that only increases. It’s almost as if adults disappear. Also, it began to feel a lot like a war story, or a gangster tale. Their whole world is one another. There is no other world. And that’s a hothouse. It can only create trouble.

MP: It’s obvious you really looked into this world. What is the biggest misconception about cheerleaders?

MA: I think our popular idea of cheerleaders—as mean girls, ditzy blondes, all those kitsch stereotypes—are a way of not looking at the things we’re afraid to reckon with about girls: that they have ambitions and desires. That they may have aggressive impulses and want to take risks. We understand this about boys, but I still think we don’t want to look at this in girls. In particular, these All-American Girls. We want them to be simple, pretty, plastic. And they’re not. I should add, I shared all these misconceptions! But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they’re cheerleaders. For me, it’s a story about girls, female friendships, its dangers. The cult of personality.

MP: When you were on tour for The End of Everything, you mentioned you were more comfortable writing about those girls in their early teens as opposed to the high school girls in Dare Me. What difference do those few years make?

MA: I think life gets so much more complicated. The yearning for experience is so much greater. Your willingness to take risks is greater and the consequences can be greater. It’s much easier for you to bluff your way into situations you cannot handle. There’s a scene in the book, set at a motel, that feels very much like that to me. Those moments from late high school when you realize: I thought I wanted this, but I didn’t know what “this” was. And there’s no going back.

MP: No matter if you go terse or more lyrical, you have a voice a reader can distinguish. How important is style to your writing?

MA: As a reader, I’m a total sucker for style. I think it’s more than embroidery, it’s everything. It’s the thing that transports the reader. That builds the world. It’s why I return, time and again, to stylists: Daniel Woodrell, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Sara Gran.

MP: You’ve shown how malleable noir is. As someone dubbed “the Queenpin Of Noir” what’s your general definition?

MA: I think it’s utterly subjective, but for me, it’s a mood, an overall feel—a sense that the world is a place of hazard because we are, in many ways, slaves to our desires. And sometimes people accuse noir of being depressing or nihilistic. I feel it’s the opposite. I think noir novels show life as brimming over with feeling, hunger, desire. So much so that it hurts. In Dare Me, all the main characters—the girls, the Coach, the two men in the book—want things they just can’t have. And they all act on that longing in different ways, dangerous ways.

MP: On our part of your tour, including a stop at our store, you’ll be with Sean Doolittle. Sean is one of those crime writers who is loved by other writers. Why should the unfamiliar pick up one of his books?

MA: Because he is the real deal. Ask anyone who’s read any of his books. I still remember the moment I first read him (with Rain Dogs), and I can’t wait for Lake Country. There’s an authenticity there, to his characters, the world he creates for them, that is rare, and beautiful.

MysteryPeople welcomes Megan Abbott and Sean Doolittle to BookPeople this Thursday, August 2nd at 7pm. Austin’s own Jesse Sublett will serenade us with a few murder ballads and we’ll enjoy complimentary refreshments.