1. Miss Marple – Jane Marple first appeared in Agatha Christie’s 1927 short story The Tuesday Night Club, although she went on to appear in 12 novels and 20 short stories. The spinster, living in the classic chocolate-box English village of St. Mary Mead, is not a professional detective, but her sleuthing (mostly linked to local gossip and confessions by those she be-friends) renders her an integral part of every police case she stumbles upon. Various film and TV drama reincarnations continue to extend her amazing deductive skills into a new century.

2. Vera Stanhope – The author Ann Cleeves has agreed that actress Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of Vera in recent TV dramas has ‘absolutely captured the spirit of the character in my books’. Set in the often bleak landscape of the North East, Vera lives a solitary life out in the wilds, drinking her whisky and never appearing to care about her appearance. Vera’s a real toughie when on a case, but her detective skills are spot on and she has a deep and emotional connection with the victims of the very grisly crimes that come her way.

3. Modesty Blaise – The British comic strip superheroine was created by author Peter O’Donnell and illustrator Jim Holdaway in 1963. Modesty began as a nameless girl given her name by a refugee who adopted her. She was originally a criminal mastermind, but eventually turned investigator alongside her sidekick Willie Gavin. It was at the time of a growth in glamorous women fighting crime (often clad in tight catsuits, high kicking the robbers). A spoof film followed in 1966 starring Monica Vitti (alongside Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde). There are still follow ups (the latest in 2017), although now Modesty fights bio-terrorists and computer criminals.

4. Lisbeth Salander – Swedish author Stieg Larsson began his Millennium series of detective novels as relaxation (he was often threatened by right-wing neo-Nazis). Sadly, the author died in 2005, one year before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and the young, complex, physically striking, psychologically deviant, brilliant computer hacker Salander became immediately popular. Her troubled childhood and the often very disturbing violence in the plots did little to discourage readers and best-selling sequels (and film versions) followed. Over the years, the Millennium Trilogy had sold 100 million copies worldwide and there seems to be no end to her appeal. Lisbeth laid a new trail in terms of defeating the baddies.

5. Miss Maud Silver – Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 novels (republished editions are a throwback to vintage pulp, compact paperbacks with dramatic painted covers) that feature Miss Silver as the retired governess-turned-detective. She bears a passing resemblance to Jane Marple as an older lady who no one takes seriously, which often helps in her investigations. In the first novel, Grey Mask, published in 1928, she is employed by globetrotting man-about-town Charles Moray to investigate his ex-fiancée and a chilling murder plot. Moray is reluctant to bring in the police, but less so to catapult Maud into the gritty London underworld. The quality of later books didn’t hit the same mark as the first few, but I have a soft spot for the brave Miss Silver.

6. Miss Pym – Nudge/NB readers might know that I am a huge fan of Golden Age of Crime author Josephine Tey, but in her novel Miss Pym Disposes the writer doesn’t rely on her famous Detective Inspector Alan Grant to solve strange goings on at a women’s college – where it’s definitely not all good eggs and hockey sticks. Psychologist Miss Pym visits for a lecture, but when a cheating student is uncovered things take a nasty turn, which leads to tragedy. Slow, careful plotting was a feature of Tey’s work and you often know the suspect within the first few pages, which did not appeal to some readers. Tey’s fame has been enhanced more recently by author Nicola Upson, who now features Josephine Tey herself as the assistant detective involved in some splendid crime solving in her novels – very surreal, I know, but I love them!

7. Cordelia Gray – The brilliance and versatility of the late Baroness P.D. James is without doubt and DCI Adam Dalgleish remains her most famous character. However, I like Cordelia Gray, who first appeared in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman when she was introduced as the courageous but vulnerable young private eye hired by the father of Mark Callender to investigate his son’s murder (viewed as a suicide). Although it’s a great novel, James obviously wasn’t feeling the vibe of Cordelia as a source of much literary success because it wasn’t until ten years later that she appeared in here next (and final) outing, The Skull Beneath the Skin. Carving her way amongst a strong contingent of female crime novelists it seems P.D. James herself felt safer in the hands and pages of poetry-loving Dalgleish.

8. Nancy Drew – Apart from Scooby Doo, there wasn’t much crime fighting going on in my childhood, but the long-running Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene (1930–2003) provided an alternative to the generally boy-led Famous Five tales by Enid Blyton. Nancy had similar cornily titled adventures, but she was working on her own and she was always brave and clever! She has gained worldwide fame as a role model for female strength and I’m surprised authors haven’t updated her for a contemporary young female readership.

9. DCI Jane Tennison – Lynda La Plante was a bestselling author way before her first Prime Suspect novel in 1991 introduced us to Tennison. This was a tough time for aspiring female police officers and Jane Tennison was instantly resented by fellow male colleagues, a lone figure in a highly macho world. La Plante wrote tough plots in which she had to show Tennison’s wealth of abilities on many murder trails. As Tennison was transferred to the small screen (with the brilliant Helen Mirren in the title role), La Plante’s input in the writing was gutsy, determined and laid a trail for women’s career paths in the 20th century police force. Unfortunately, the recent prequel Prime Suspect 1973, featuring a young rookie Tennison, fell flat – probably because the TV producers were reluctant to involve La Plante in any of the screen-writing.

10. Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir – One to watch! Ragnar Jonasson is well known in Iceland, but his first crime novel to be translated into English is The Darkness, which introduces us to 64-year-old Hulda, who is being forced into early retirement. Given her last two weeks of work in which to investigate a cold case (no pun intended in the snowbound setting of Iceland) involving the disappearance of a young woman, Hulda discovers it is her colleagues in the Reykjavik police force who have been covering up the real suspects and she risks more than the end of her career by seeking to uncover the truth. Not yet tired of bleak crime scenes set amongst a frozen terrain? Well, thankfully, I’m delighted to report this is the first of a series featuring Hulda.

Philipa Coughlan
October 2018