When you think of detectives in fiction, you might immediately think of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or C. Auguste Dupin. These gentlemen occupy much of crime fiction’s real estate, even years after their peak popularity.
But while they are the originals who established the genre, there are also female detectives who deserve recognition. Although only a small fraction of them exist as of now, they have done more than their part to enrich the genre.
Best Female Detectives in Literature
Whether they’re amateur sleuths or professional detectives, these are some of the best detectives you can read about in books.
1. Mma Precious Ramotswe from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Ramotswe was a loving daughter, battered wife, and mourning mother before becoming Botswana’s first-ever female detective. Despite being untrained, her life experiences and talent for understanding people help her solve the many cases she’s faced with.
Whether it’s tracking down missing people, outmaneuvering conmen, or helping wrongdoers seek atonement, Mma Ramotswe is more than up for the challenge.
2. Mrs. Bradley from Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell
“Reptilian” with a “cackling laugh,” Mrs. Bradley is a gloriously mean old lady who just so happens to be talented at solving crime and throwing shade while she’s at it. And although her eccentricities can be grating to other people, she wears them like a badge of honor.
As chaos ensues, she calmly observes and interprets, carefully laying down the traps that ultimately catch the culprits. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and isn’t above using a bit of ruthlessness to solve a mystery.
3. Clarice Starling from the Hannibal Series by Thomas Harris
Clarice Starling is an FBI trainee suddenly thrown way out of her league. And yet, she matches the wits and earns the respect of one of the most fearsome serial killers in the business.
Throughout the books, Starling proves herself to be smart, intuitive, and brave, a powerful combination for a sleuth. Sadly, she does turn to the dark side in Hannibal. She and Hannibal grow close and he even feeds her the brains of the officer who was stunting her career.
4. Nancy Drew from the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
Everyone’s favorite girl detective is smart, headstrong, and curious. While the crimes she investigates aren’t as “hardcore” as the others on this list, there’s no denying her place in crime literature.
Remarkably talented, she’s also accompanied by a steadfast group of people in her work. Whether it’s her friends Bess and George, her boyfriend Ned, or her dad Carson, they always find a way to solve any mystery they find.
5. Miss Marple from the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie
Arguably the most famous female detective in fiction, Miss Marple is the brainchild of Dame Agatha Christie, who is regarded as the greatest mystery writer of all time.
An elderly spinster with razor sharp intellect, she’s adept at reading people and picking up the most minuscule clues that many overlook. And because everyone else dismisses her as a silly old woman, she’s always in the perfect position for investigating cases—overlooked but never outmatched.
Best Female Detectives on Screen
Movies and TV series have brought to life some of the most compelling female detectives. Here are just a few of them.
6. Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo
While each member of the gang has their own skills and specialties, Velma’s usually the one who actually solves the mystery. Incredibly intelligent and well-read in many obscure topics, she can connect seemingly random clues and figure out the perpetrator of a case.
Perhaps her greatest strength (and weakness) is her skeptical nature. Unlike the rest of the gang, she’s likely to ignore any supernatural explanation to a case. She’ll claim that ghosts and zombies (which are real in the franchise) are mere hallucinations.
7. Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars is a high school (later college) student who moonlights as a private investigator. Unlike many on this list, she’s actually being mentored by an expert: her detective father. Most of the cases she investigates occur in or around her high school and range from petty crimes to more serious ones like sexual assault.
Just like any teenager, Veronica’s equipped with a sarcastic streak, which she often uses a weapon. She’s also creative and resourceful, often solving cases before her father can.
8. Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Olivia Benson is a detective whose unshakeable morals steadfastly help her rise from a dedicated detective to the eventual captain of the Special Victims Unit. She specializes in cases where sexual offenses such as rape and child sexual abuse are involved.
As a detective, she’s strongly motivated to help victims achieve justice, and works almost obsessively to see things through. Her empathic nature inspires those who work with her to approach their jobs with the same compassion she has.
9. Marge Gunderson from Fargo
As chief of police, Marge has the skills, experience, and intuition required for the role. She’s able to quickly and accurately judge a crime scene, identify leads, and make an arrest—while being seven months pregnant too!
What makes her different is that she’s kept her warm and cheery outlook on life, unlike many detectives who are depicted as cynical and broken. She’s in a happy marriage, is expecting her first child, and exhibits kindness even in the way she speaks to criminals.
10. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Lisbeth is a brilliant hacker known all over the world and uses her skills to do investigative work for Milton Security. She also has perfect recall and is a master of disguise, changing her appearance to travel undetected anywhere.
Unconventional, asocial, and deeply troubled, Lisbeth is motivated by a hatred for men who abuse women and takes pleasure in punishing them. She follows her own set of morals and isn’t afraid of breaking the law to expose the bad guys.
Lady Detectives Taking the Lead
The stereotypical detective reclines on their leather chair behind a scratched, messy desk. The room is dark and their face is further hidden beneath the shadow of their hat. On one hand is a glass of alcohol—typically, whiskey—and on the other, a cigar. A trenchcoat hangs on a peg, ready to be snatched and worn when going out on a case.
This is the image of a detective as set by popular fiction. You can blame classic noir for this one. And while the image has bled and molded itself to other subgenres of crime fiction, there’s one thing that links them all. More often than not, that detective is a man.
But what if it were a woman? That’s a question many writers with female detective characters seek to answer. Women obviously have a different perspective of the world, and it’s that perspective that many storytellers try to convey.
This opens up new themes, issues, and concepts to explore, such sexism in the workplace, harassment cases, and more. In other words, the female perspective brings a fresh and distinct approach to crime fiction that makes it all the more richer.