October 2022 marks the centenary of the appointment of the FBI’s first female agent, Alaska P. Davidson. There have been many great women detectives in the history of mystery fiction from strictly amateur sleuths like Loveday Brooke to hard-boiled private eyes such as V.I. Warshawski. Yet those who actually serve in law enforcement are definitely rarer than they ought to be. Here we take a look at some of the best examples of "the girls in blue" in mystery books.
Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
Female police officers in Britain weren’t actually allowed to arrest anyone until 1923, but that didn’t stop Baroness Emmuska Orczy (who also wrote the excellent Old Man in the Corner stories) from creating the first lady Scotland Yard detective in 1910. Lady Molly is a Scottish noblewoman whose husband has been wrongly imprisoned for murder. She takes on her role with the London police so she can prove her spouse’s innocence. Along the way she becomes so successful at solving crime using her superior knowledge of household management, fashion, cookery, and other aspects of life that are a total blank to her male counterparts that she is made head of a special Scotland Yard “Female Department”. Sadly, once her husband is freed from jail, she retires. Her cases, written up by assistant Mary Granard, appeared in book form as Lady Molly of Scotland Yard.
The Grim Maiden: An Anthony Bathurst Mystery
Women detectives were commonplace during The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (think of Miss Marple or Harriet Vane) but serving female police officers were almost as rare as hen’s teeth. One notable exception is Helen Repton, a Scotland Yard detective who makes regular appearances in Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series commencing with The Grim Maiden (1944). Repton—whose actual rank remains a bit of a mystery—is never the chief protagonist, but she frequently works as the main foil for the upper-crust amateur sleuth Bathurst and enjoys a warm and often flirtatious relationship with him. The very fact she is there at all makes her worthy of note.
The TV series Police Woman (1974) starring Angie Dickinson was said to have led to an avalanche of women applying to join the U.S. police. The effect of crime fiction was altogether slower. Amongst the first fictional US female police detectives, and certainly the first to be openly gay, was Kate Delafield. The ex-Marine turned LAPD homicide cop, is the creation of San Francisco-based Canadian writer Katherine V. Forrest. Described by one critic as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and kd laing, Delafield has so far appeared in ten mystery novels starting with 1984’s Amateur City in which she investigates a killing in a high rise office block.
The Silence of the Lambs
Rookie FBI agent Starling and her strange relationship with brilliant sociopath Hannibal Lecter form the gripping central relationship in Thomas Harris’ smart, spine-chilling thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1988). In that novel, the unlikely pair combine to hunt down a predatory killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, before Lecter escapes from his maximum security facility and disappears. Starling and Lecter are reunited to queasy effect in 1999’s Hannibal. By now Starling is thirty, her career stalled by misogynistic Department of Justice bureaucrat Paul Krenzler. Thanks to Lecter she will have her revenge on Krenzler and in the most grisly manner imaginable.
DCI Jane Tennison
Memorably played on TV by Helen Mirren, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking Tennison was created by Liverpudlian author and screenplay writer Lynda Le Plante for her 1991 novel Prime Suspect. One of the first female Detective Chief Inspectors in London’s Metropolitan Police, Tennison has to battle boorish underlings and patronizing bosses as she investigates a series of brutal killings, the victims all prostitutes. The tenacious, no-nonsense Tennison has appeared in eight further novels including 2022’s Dark Rooms.
Fiction’s first African-American female police detective, MacAlister was the creation of Eleanor Taylor Bland (who sadly died in 2015 aged just 65). A tough hard-working cop with the Chicago PD, MacAlister transfers to the fictional suburb of Lincoln Prairie, Illinois after her husband passes away. Dogged and intuitive, struggling to balance detective work with bringing up two young children as a single parent, MacAlister made her bow in Dead Time (1992) and would appear in eleven further novels including Slow Burn and Scream in Silence. Bland subtly weaves themes of sexism and racism into the novels and there’s plenty of dry humor, too most of it surrounding MacAlister’s relationship with her partner, the meticulous small-town guy, Vik Jessenovik.
Californian Tess Gerritsen’s detective—the youngest in the history of the Boston PD—is brash and spiky. An unattractive tomboy from a family of brothers, she’s used to having to fight to be heard and is quite happy to scrap with anyone. Rizzoli was first introduced in a non-central role in The Surgeon (2001), but quickly and characteristically wrestled her way to the front, where she has stayed for the dozen novels that have followed. Gerritsen’s best-selling mysteries often see Rizzoli teaming up with her best friend, quirky medical examiner Maura Isles who made her debut in The Apprentice (2002).
The Secret Place
Dublin-based US-born writer, Tana French’s Irish murder squad detective, Conway, takes center stage in The Secret Place (investigating the murder of a teenage boy at an exclusive girl’s boarding school) and The Trespasser (in which a routine murder inquiry turns personal). She’s hard, working class with a balanced personality (she’s got a chip on both shoulders), and an urgent need to always be right. Abrasive and unpopular with the rest of her squad who mercilessly harass her, she seems to have no friends beyond her partner Stephen Moran. French somehow makes Conway empathetic and likable even when she’s at her most infuriating.
The Crow Trap
Clumping around the crime scenes of North East England in gigantic sandals, wearing an assortment of clothes that seem to have been grabbed from the rails of a thrift store, Ann Cleeves’ beloved middle-aged Detective Chief Inspector (brilliantly portrayed on TV by Brenda Blethyn) owes a great debt to the eccentric amateur sleuths of the Golden Age—she’s a Beatrice Bradley for the 21st Century. The irascible, unsociable, workaholic Stanhope, who serves in the fictional Northumberland and City Police, has so far appeared in ten novels commencing with The Crow Trap (1999).