Women Are Writing the Best Mysteries

Women Crime Writers coverWritten By Kate Farrell

In a recent article in The Atlantic, critic Terrence Rafferty discusses the rise of female mystery authors who write a different kind of story. Such rise began with the breakaway bestselling novel, Gone Girl, a psychological, suburban thriller by Gillian Flynn (2012). Male authors, who once wrote about a lone private eye stalking the mean streets with a gun, a hat, and a cigarette, have seen that character vanish along with cowboys in the old West.

Rafferty states: “Female writers, for whatever reason, don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence. Murder is de rigueur in the genre, so people die at the hands of others—lovers, neighbors, obsessive strangers—but the body counts tend to be on the low side.”

He goes on to say: “Death, in these women’s books, is often chillingly casual, and unnervingly intimate. As a character in Alex Marwood’s brilliant new novel, The Darkest Secret, muses: ‘They’re not always creeping around with knives in dark alleyways. Most of them kill you from the inside out.’ The awareness of that inside-out sort of violence sets the women writers apart, these days, from even the best of the men.”

Historically, in the so-called Golden Age of mysteries,Rafferty suggests, women were better at creating plausible motivations for crimes. He mentions Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. One of my favorite authors of that era is Sayers, whose famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, is a complex man. His intense motivation to solve crimes and bring perpetrators to justice is based on his traumatic experience in World War I trenches. His role is that of a subtle hero, introspective, and often masked behind a variety of carefully constructed social behaviors.

Three Bay Area best-selling mystery authors who demonstrate these interior character traits are Cara Black, Laurie R. King, and Sophie Littlefield.

Murder on the Quai coverMurder on the Quai is the prequel to the 15-book Aimée Leduc Investigation Series. It lets us in on some of the secrets that always simmered just below the surface of every other book. Because it is the wellspring of all the others, I think this book is the best one. Well written and researched, Black’s prose flows with a honed skill that infuses life on every page.

While this novel depicts both a coming of age for Aimée, a Bildungsroman of self-discovery, and a tantalizing meeting between her parents, it is also a historical mystery. When the Berlin Wall falls, we are thrust back in time, to the German occupation on the Vichy border in France, a transport truck of Nazi gold, and the greed of villagers, wheat farmers who suddenly develop a Midas itch.

After reading every book in the series, it was a delight to finally get to know Jean-Claude, Aimée’s father, in the flesh, not just as a beloved ghost. A sudden glimpse of her mother. Her grand-père bringing home a stray dog. A first meeting of René. Each character gained in depth and dimension, filling in the blanks for the reader who only knew them through painful nostalgia and relived emotional trauma. As the book accelerated to its final scenes, I came to a deeper understanding of Aimée’s character that resonated in retrospect through all her other books. Murder on the Quai is a wonderful read for those who already are fans and a terrific way to begin reading the series.

Murder of Mary Russell cover One would think the housekeeper for Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell would be just as she appears. Mrs. Hudson is amenable to their quirkiness and never even blinks when she finds something atrocious stored in the closet. However, what if Mrs. Hudson were not at all as she appears, what if she had a shady and dark past that included pickpocket, seductress, and murderer?

Indeed, the reader discovers in The Murder of Mary Russell that Mrs. Hudson has been all of those things and much more. It was young Sherlock who saved her from a destiny of certain peril all those years ago, while discovering his own aptitude as detective. Mrs. Hudson made a deal with the devil that required her to make terrible concessions she always lived to regret. But she knew at the time that in order to survive her crimes, she had to hide in plain sight.

This novel is a clever exposé of Mrs. Hudson, a woman that readers familiar with her stolid character in the Sherlock Holmes canon would never suspect. It is a tour de force by King, who amazes us with yet another twist of plot and character that keeps the Mary Russell series fresh and exciting.

Missing Place cover Something a reader looks for, but does not always find, is a book with strong characters. What makes The Missing Place a compelling read is not only the setting in the oil fields of North Dakota, but the complexity of the two characters in the story, Colleen and Shay, as they search for their sons who have disappeared.

With each of their sons missing, these two very different women are brought together in a dire situation to find out what happened in a town where others have died on oil rigs or suffered terrible injuries while working on high-risk, often exceptionally well-paying jobs. Together, the two mothers confront everything: from oil rights and Indian reservation rights to OSHA as a looming threat with the power to shut down rigs.

It is a character-driven story, where the reader struggles to like and accept Colleen and Shay, while nonetheless feeling empathy for what they are going through: their sense of despair so deep, it unravels them to their core.

Kate Farrell, author, librarian, storyteller, edited the anthology, Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother (2011), co-edited the award-winning anthology Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s &’70s (2013) and co-edited, the award-winning Cry of the Nightbird: Writers Against Domestic Violence (2014). She is currently a resource librarian for San Francisco Unified School District and working on a collection of original stories: Woman Wonder Tales. Visit her at: http://katefarrell.net/


  1. Help! I am a longtime member of WNBA- SF Chapter and need help figuring out how to get a short notice in the national (and/or local) newsletter about a novel I have just had published! It is “Flight to Ohio, from Slavery to Passing to Freedom,” released by Tayen Lane Publishers July 15, 2016, now available through bookstores and online at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. It is a suspenseful historical novel, set in 1836-1858.
    Thank you, any of you who take the time to respond to this plea. I am not technologically savvy! Please email me; I can handle that much technology!

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