Any mystery lover knows how significant Agatha Christie is to the crime-fiction genre. But she wasn’t the only woman on the scene—nor the first. Women crime writers have always been influential in the world of mysteries, and here are a few who may be less familiar to even a dedicated reader.
If you were investigating the case of the modern crime novel—scouring its pages for prints, swabbing carefully to get a read on its DNA—you might expect the trail of its origins to lead back to the usual suspects: Dupin and Holmes, Poirot and Marple, Spenser and Sam Spade. But this literary genealogy is incomplete without the inclusion of the women (many of them not named Agatha Christie) who helped shape the genre but haven't commanded lasting literary attention. Inspect the list below to find any number of overlooked gems that deserve a second look.
Anna Katharine Green
Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first detective story by an American author—but the first detective novel was the work of Anna Katharine Green, with 1878’s The Leavenworth Case. While the actual detective—Ebenezer Gryce—isn't much of a presence throughout most of the narrative, he's quite memorable when he is on the page. And, he does manage to stay several steps ahead of the narrator, a young lawyer who takes it upon himself to assist in the investigation of the wealthy Horatio Leavenworth's murder in the hopes of exonerating the beautiful (but possibly murderous) niece of the deceased. This book predates both Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and it's a worthwhile read to see how Green's novel (which was a bestseller in its time) influenced the evolving mystery genre.
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mary Roberts Rinehart picked up the torch some thirty years after Green, publishing dozens of mysteries and earning the title of “the American Agatha Christie,” even though she was writing over a decade before Christie’s debut. Rinehart’s The Bat featured a costumed villain, which Batman creator Bob Kane cites as one of his inspirations, and was also one of the earliest examples of an audiobook—aka talking book recording—in 1933.
Also worth checking out is her novella The Buckled Bag, which manages to entertain and intrigue over the course of a brisk seventy-page read. Rinehart's protagonist is a sharply observant private nurse who is recruited to freelance for a detective firm. There are a lot of interesting class and gender dynamics in play—characters seem to confide in Hilda Adams partly because she's a woman and partly because her functional role is that of a high-level servant.
Leigh Brackett was a notable science-fiction writer and screenwriter (hello, The Big Sleep—co-written with William Faulkner!—and, on the other end of the spectrum, an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back), but before all that she wrote stories for Black Mask and a solid noir novel, No Good from a Corpse (1944), starring hardboiled PI Ed Clive as he investigates the murder of a nightclub singer he’s in love with. Enter here for all the femme fatales, fistfights, and plot twists you’d expect from any of Brackett’s male contemporaries in the genre.
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
One of Raymond Chandler’s favorite writers, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding wrote nearly twenty detective novels from 1929 to her death in 1955. Check out The Blank Wall (1947), in which wartime housewife Lucia Holley tries to protect her family’s name after her daughter becomes romantically entangled with a gangster by accident. Although dutifully going through the motions of gardening, grocery shopping, and icebox repairs, Lucia still manages to dispose of not one, but two bodies while becoming entangled with a gangster of her own and grappling with the stirrings of feminism in herself and her daughter.
Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award-winning The Beast in View (1955) is an absolute must-read for anyone who likes good psychological suspense. Helen Clarvoe, a wealthy 30-year-old recluse who lives in a second-rate hotel, receives a threatening phone call from a woman from her past. Helen enlists her financial advisor to track down this woman, and what unfolds is a chilling novel about how a simple phone call is enough to ruin several lives, written in spare, sardonic prose using a modern structure with effortlessly shifting points of view. Millar was also married to Ross MacDonald, author of the acclaimed Lew Archer series. (P.S. If you’re going to pick one book from this list to read right now, make it The Beast In View.)
See also: Beats in View: Margaret Millar at 100
Up to the 1970s, mysteries penned by women featured male detectives or female amateur sleuths. It wasn’t until Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone to the world that we had our first hardboiled female private investigator. In Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977), she investigates the murder of a San Francisco antique store owner. A murder is outside of her normal scope as a staff investigator for the All Souls legal co-op, but Sharon is thoroughly up for the challenge. Liberated, pragmatic, and tough, she paved the way for other female PI characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.
While Sharon McCone was technically the first hard-boiled female PI on the scene, Liza Cody’s Anna Lee preceded the aforementioned V.I. and Kinsey. Debuting in 1980 in Dupe, this London private investigator’s first outing concerns the film industry and a young woman whose death in a car accident might not have been so accidental. Anna has a deliciously droll voice, deals expertly with sexism from her coworkers at Brierly Security (including from the other woman in the office, her boss’s secretary), and is often called upon to fix things for her male downstairs neighbor, making her every bit as contemporary as modern-day lady PIs.
Eleanor Taylor Bland
Eleanor Taylor Bland was the creator of the first African-American female police detective in crime fiction: Marti MacAlister, a tough-but-empathetic workaholic transplant from the Chicago Police Department to Lincoln Prairie, Illinois (a thinly veiled version of Waukegan), widowed with two kids at the start of the series (Dead Time, 1992). Marti deals with casual racism and sexism from coworkers and the public alike, but she also earns their respect with her dogged determination and acute intuition. In Dead Time, she looks into a string of deaths at a rundown hotel and ties the killings to a crime ring that stretched back to the Vietnam War.
See also: Top Female Crime and Mystery Authors
Know of another writer who belongs on this list? Drop a note in the comments!
Kristen Lepionka grew up mostly in her local public library, where she could be found with a big stack of adult mysteries before she was out of middle school. In the name of writing research, she has gone on multiple police ride-alongs, taken a lock-picking class, trespassed through an abandoned granary, and hiked inside an Icelandic volcano. Her writing has been selected for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grift, and Black Elephant. She is also the editor of Betty Fedora, a semi-annual journal that publishes feminist crime fiction, and lives in Columbus, Ohio with her partner and two cats.