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Friday Five: 15 Killer Crime Series by Female Authors

What happened to Friday Five? We suspect Professor Plum, in the library, with a wrench. Plum's always seemed like the dodgy one, but maybe that's our latent anti-intellectualism at work.

This week, Friday Five returns, aided by the mojo of Lavie Tidhar - one of the great cross-genre, cross-over (and occasionally just cross) authors, BFS winner for his short fiction and a Red Tentacle, BSFA and WFA finalist for his exceptional Osama (out now in paperback, hint!).

His topic of choice? Crime series by female authors. Lavie's joined by Anne, Bex and Jared for this one - we all wanted to chip in...


Brother CadfaelLavie 

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory novels are some of my favourite ever crime novels. Kathy is a wonderful creation – she was obviously an influence on Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and, in a less multimillion-dollar international franchise, also on my own Milady de Winter in Camera Obscura. Kathy is complex, possibly sociopathic, with a strong sense of justice and a need to understand her own troubling childhood. It’s hard to pick favourites in this series. I have a soft spot for Shell Game, which features magicians (a personal favourite!) but the two highlights of the series are Flight of the Stone Angel – a powerful Southern Gothic in which Kathy discovers the truth about her mother’s death – and Find Me, which brings Kathy’s personal story to a conclusion when she discovers her father’s diary.

Who doesn’t like Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael? The gentle hero of 21 novels set in 12th century Shrewsbury, Cadfael is a monk and ex-crusader who now happily serves as a herbalist in the Benedictine order. Cadfael just happens to fall into murders committed around him – usually while helping a couple of young lovers on their way. Gentle, unhurried and gripping, the series follows Cadfael’s life as the war for the kingdom rages around Britain, and introduces his fellow brothers, his changing but always hapless assistants, and eventually the son he never knew he had.

How much do I love Janet Evanovich? Let me count the ways! One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score... There are 19 Stephanie Plum novels out so far, and one of the great joys in life is knowing that, however many you’ve read, there is always a new one waiting for you. I’m up to 16 or so, at last count. Who can fail to love hapless bounty hunter Stephanie, her hamster Rex, her sleazy boss (and cousin) Vinnie, her on-again-off-again cop boyfriend Morelli and Ranger, the super-hot bounty hunter who has his own plans for Stephanie? Romance, humour and murder – who could ask for more?

Ok, so I have a soft spot for historical detectives! Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew, a doctor in Cambridge in the Middle Ages, keeps being dragged into complex murder mysteries involving both the university and the town (and sometimes going beyond Cambridge altogether), always in the company of his rotund friend Brother Michael, who bosses him and everyone else along.

Part of the pleasure of any series is the gradual familiarity not just with the main characters but with the minor ones, and this is a particular delight here, in Matthew’s eccentric Cambridge companions, some of whom grow from volume to volume, and some who inevitably end up either dead or as the murderers themselves.

Sadly, Batya Gur, an Israeli novelist known for her detective novels as well as for her outspoken political stance, died too early, of cancer, at the age of 57. Her death put an end to one of my favourite series, featuring the Israeli inspector Michael Ohayon. Quiet, methodical, of Moroccan parentage and something of a ladies’ men, Ohayon immerses himself each time in an alien environment to solve the crime. In Saturday Morning Murder it is the world of psychoanalysis; in Literary Murder it is the world of literary academia, while in Murder on a Kibbutz that alien environment is that of an Israeli kibbutz in the height of the 1980s ideological battles over communal sleeping (hey, I lived through that!). There were six books in total, all published in an English translation by HarperCollins in the US. The first three are to my mind the best and, for anyone wishing to understand life on a kibbutz, Murder on a Kibbutz is essential reading.

Bex & Jared 

We signed up to do this as a team: a crime-fighting-writing duo. Or something like that...

Death_on_the_NileAgatha Christie is no great stylist. Her characters are pretty thin too, and I’m sure she cheated in her plots. But there’s a reason she’s so successful: she’s just so much fun. Plus reading Death on the Nile while on the Nile once gave me an almost sexual thrill. [Bex]

Then there’s Sara Paretsky. After I spent my youth reading the likes of Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, Paretsky showed me that women can do hard-boiled too. And she did it without masculinising her heroine, a trick too many others have failed to master. [Bex]

Christa Faust takes hard-boiled to an extreme. Faust is only two books in with the Angel Dare series, but it is already tough to beat. The first, Money Shot, was a gritty look at murder in the world of the sex trade. The second, Choke Hold, moved the scene to the rough and tumble realm of mixed martial arts. Hard-hitting (pun!) and incredibly visceral, Faust is staking a claim as one of the best voices in contemporary noir. [Jared]

There’s some great literature in the crime genre, but – let’s be honest – often great literature isn’t what I’m after. Nothing makes me turn the page quicker than a solid mystery and if there’s gore – and ideally perverse serial killers – involved, so much the better. Tess Gerritson does that as well as anyone. [Bex]

Denise Mina could be on this list for several of her series, but, in the spirit of great literature, I'm going with her run on Hellblazer. With so many great writers taking a spin with John Constantine, it is hard to stand out, but Mina's work with the seminal occult detective is fantastic. She puts the emphasis on old-school deduction and character-building elements, rather than hand-waving sorcery and elaborate metaverse building. [Jared]

Dorothy SayersAnne 

Dorothy L. Sayers - my favorite author, my favorite series, my favorite fictional character. Lord Peter and the Sayers novels can look pretty dated these days - the first Sayers novel will be ninety years old in 2013. And Sayers is often accused of crimes ranging from 'using her novels as a polemical platform' to 'being in love with her own main character'. But the Sayers novels elevated detective fiction out of the fluff and pulp of many of her forgotten contemporaries, proving that characterisation can and does matter across series-long arcs and that genre can be serious literature. 

Speaking of fluff, man oh man are Ngaio Marsh's novels fluffy. But they're fun and, if you're a theatre fan, they're littered with interesting plots, subplots, and setpieces involving London theatres in the 1930s. 

Edith Parteger wrote a lot, and I do mean a lot, of forgettable mystery novels. But I forgive her all her sins because her books are charming, good-hearted, and (like so many mysteries written by women of her generation; see, e.g., above) informed by a profound melancholy. She evokes a fascinating period in English history and her beloved Shewsbury with equal vigour in her Cadfael series (written under the name Ellis Peters) and I'm enough of a fan that I've made the trek out to Shrewsbury Abbey. Twice.

My mom started reading the Kinsey Millhone series in the early nineties, when H is for Homicide was published. I've had the dubious honour, then, of watching myself age by tracking the letter author Sue Grafton has most recently published. (V is for Vengeance, 2011. Yikes.) As a teenager, I liked the Kinsey Millhone mysteries because the protagonist lived in a thinly-veiled version of Santa Barbara, a city I'd spent time in, and (more importantly) because she took exactly no shit from anyone. As an adult I find I like the series... for exactly the same reasons.

Is it cheating to mention the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene? I've written about Nancy Drew at length in the past, but it's always worth mentioning that the Nancy Drew mysteries were my first literary love, and what originally drew me to reading, back when I was young and more interested in climbing trees than sitting still.

What about you? Who are your favourite detectives from female authors?