Last year, we had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson solving crimes and waxing poetic about the folly of man and the nature of the cosmos. But in the latest rendition of HBO’s True Detective, we get Rachel McAdams as Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides. She’s tough, stoic, badass, and independent — all the ingredients that make female sleuths such intriguing characters in literature and film.
Granted, Ani is more Dirty Harry than Agatha Christie, but who says all female detectives have to be the same? Some are Veronica Mars, others are Lisbeth Salander. But they’re all usually lone wolves who’ve struck out on their own and reclaimed their independence by solving crimes, cracking cases, and giving the bad guys a good ass kicking when needed. Which is often.
This new iteration of True Detective might not live up to the original with its Emmys and critical praise. But, unlike the McConaughey/Harrelson version, this one actually has a lead female character that isn’t a boobalicious victim. The show premiered on Sunday to not-so-hot reviews (McAdams' performance seems to be the only saving grace so far), so we’ll see how the rest of the episodes unfold. Here’s hoping we get more of Ani Bezzerides. The woman is out for vengeance, and that's always fun to see. On screen and in books, at least.
In honor of McAdams' badass TV sleuth, here’s a rundown of 12 female literary detectives that came before her, from Nancy Drew to Clarice Starling.
Janet Evanovich’s New Jersey bounty hunter Plum started as a laid off and broke everywoman with attitude who blackmails her bail bondsman cousin into giving her a shot as an apprehension agent. The Stephanie Plum series is humorous and light, so if you’re looking for a noir-ish P.I. story this is definitely not that. Still, it’s fun, as evidenced by titles like One For the Money and Two For the Dough. (You can skip the Katherine Heigl movie version and go straight for the books).
Drew is one of the most iconic, enduring female sleuths in history. She was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer back in the 1930s, and the character has changed over the years. At first she was a sarcastic, gun toting, firecracker in flapper duds, and in the 1950s she started wearing prim and ladylike outfits and the sarcasm disappeared. Simon & Schuster reintroduced her in 2004 in a series called Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, making her more introspective and cautious. Still, she remains one of the most important female detectives in literature, and it’s cool to track her evolution over the years.
Stieg Larsson created this Swedish sleuth, and she is one P.I. you do not want to mess with. She’s a brooding goth-punk, a brilliant hacker, and an ass-kicker when you piss her off. In Girl With the Dragon Tattoo she’s so formidable she’s almost like a comic book heroine.
The legendary Miss Marple figure has been in about a dozen of Agatha Christie's crime novels, putting the pieces of the puzzle together and solving crimes like a prim little granny. She’s wicked smart underneath her bonnets and bloomers, and if you’re looking for a character that redefines the term “spinster,” Miss Marple is a good start.
She starts off as a wide-eyed student at the FBI Academy who is sent to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the genius psychiatrist and serial killer who also dabbles in cannibalism — cute! Starling later becomes an FBI agent, and in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal she’s a hell of a lot braver than most of us would be when faced with Buffalo Bill and Dr. Lecter.
Kathy Reichs created the bestselling Temperance Brennan series, which was the inspiration for the TNT show Bones that starred Zooey Deschanel’s sis Emily. In the books, Brennan is a forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist who also happens to be an ace detective. Check out Reichs’ awesomely titled Déjà Dead , and the latest book in the series, Speaking in Bones , which comes out this July.
Author Sara Paretsky created Victoria Iphigenia “V. I.” Warshawski, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Her dad was a cop and her mom was a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy. She’s stubborn and independent (like all good female sleuths), and she takes on crime bosses, corrupt billionaires, and lowlife criminals like a boss. Check out Indemnity Only, Deadlock, and Body Work . Kathleen Turner — a woman who was made to play a tough-talking sleuth — played Warshawski in the 1991 movie version.
Bertha Cool wins the award for the best fictional detective name in history. She’s the heroine of A.A. Fair’s series of detective novels about oddball P.I’s Cool & Lam (Bertha, the larger than life lady detective, and Donald Lam, a disbarred lawyer who teams up with her to find the bad guys). Bertha opened the agency when her hubby died, and she's a tough-talking detective who loves pies instead of whiskey. The first book in the series is called The Bigger They Come. Pun intended, I’m sure.
Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith conjured up Precious Ramotswe, the Botswana woman who founded her own detective agency in the capital city of Gaborone. The series starts with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Like the Stephanie Plum series, this one is more fun than dark, so it’s a nice change if you’re in a somber mood after spending too much time with Lisbeth Salander and Clarice Starling. Fun fact: Singer Jill Scott played Precious in the HBO series based on the books.
Sue Grafton’s protagonist is another independent woman who blazed her own path despite the odds. Millhone lost her parents at a young age, she loves books, hates cooking, and doesn’t need a man to make her feel whole. She became a cop, got married and divorced (twice), and then truly found her calling when she became a P.I. She’s the star of Grafton’s “alphabet series” of books, with titles like A is for Alibi and D is for Deadbeat . The latest is simply called X . Maybe because X is for X-Ray doesn’t have the same je n’est ce quoi.
This Oslo detective was created by Norwegian author Anne Holt, and her saga started in early 1990s with Blind Goddess. Hanne was forced to retire as a police inspector after a case gone wrong, but she seeks justice and solves crimes with a single-minded passion that’s earned her fans all over the world. The series is being translated and released in English out of order, but don’t let that stop you from devouring Holt’s books — they’re worth the read, regardless of chronology.
Rizzoli & Isles
Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles are the brainchild of M.D. turned author Tess Gerritsen. They’re opposites who make a perfect match (at least when it comes to taking down thugs and killers). The series was turned into the TNT drama of the same name, so you can read the books and then binge-watch the show.
So there’s twelve very different female detective series to choose from, depending on your mood. If you want light and airy, go for Stephanie Plum or Precious Ramotswe. If dark and dire is what you crave, Lisbeth and Clarice can be your guides. And check out Rachel McAdams in True Detective — maybe she’s about to have a McConaissance of her own.
Images: Lacey Terrell/HBO