If you’re looking for the best mystery books to read in 2020, check out these 7 female detectives you don’t want to mess with. As a writer, I like to think that I’ve created some pretty bad-ass female sleuths in my mysteries, but there are some pretty tough cookies in other great books that I would not want to cross. I’ve come up with a selection of some of my personal favorites. Each is formidable in her own way. Some pack a gun, others are armed only with a cup of hot tea and mind like a steel trap.
These sharp, tough ladies are what I’d call squad goals. Let’s meet them.
Hester Latterly Monk from Anne Perry’s William Monk series
When we first meet Hester, she’s just returned home from serving as a battlefield nurse with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, so we already know she’s made of stern stuff. Even those who like Hester find her infuriatingly stubborn. But it turns out that fierce determination and fearlessness come in handy when solving crimes on the mean streets of 1850s London.
She meets her match in permanently cranky amnesiac detective William Monk. Readers will figure out that these two frenemies need to get a room several books before they do, but it’s perfectly clear that Monk admires her toughness, loyalty, stubbornness, and her determination to right society’s wrongs all along. It just takes him some time to figure out that those qualities are not only admirable but kinda hot.
Hester won’t take you out with a right hook or a pistol shot, but she can stealthily gather info to bring about your downfall if you’re doing the wrong thing. And she never gives up.
Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man
In my humble option, this is probably the best mystery book ever written. Despite being a character in several movies, Nora actually only makes one appearance in print. Nora is young, wealthy, and living the booze-fueled high-life with her older husband, Nick Charles. But she’s no spoiled princess.
When a mobster breaks into her bedroom at night and holds her at gunpoint, she barely bats an eye. Not even when her husband socks her in the jaw to knock her out and get her out of the line of fire. Nora’s just mad that she didn’t get to see Nick take the guy out. Nora matches former Pinkerton man Nick quip for quip and drink for drink until they get to the bottom of what really happened to the thin man. (who is not Nick Charles, but a missing inventor)
If you think the 1930s were somehow a more innocent time, you’ll want to check out this 1934 book by Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man is close to the top of my list of best mystery books of 2020 or any other year.
Lady Juliet Linton
Lady Juliet Linton from Emma Jameson’s Marriage Can Be Murder
Juliet is as stubborn as Hester and born into wealth and privilege like Nora, but she’s still struggling to find herself in a small English village at the start of WWII. An exceptionally tall, strong woman, she feels more like a clumsy horse than a fierce Amazon. It doesn’t help that she seems to have been cursed with the world’s worst fashion sense and a knack for always saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.
But she’s also blessed with a sharp mind, good heart, thirst for adventure, and the natural ability to take charge. Juliet is interesting because unlike the rest of the ladies on this list, she’s not fully aware of just how strong and beautiful she really is yet. But we’re only a few books into the series, and she’s starting to wake up. Now that she has some mystery-solving under the belt of those trousers she insists upon wearing, Juliet is even more of a force to be reckoned with.
Precious Ramotswe from Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency
Unlike the previous three fearless sleuths we’ve talked about, Precious isn’t investigating murders, kidnappings, or other dastardly crimes. This traditionally-built resident of Botswana focuses more on solving personal crises. Armed with only red bush tea and a keen understanding of human nature, Precious is able to see what others might miss.
Her only weapons are compassion, confidence, and unbridled optimism. Still, she’s just as formidable an adversary as the other ladies on this list. More so, because she’s likely to turn you from an adversary to an ally without your realizing it’s even happening. The first book in the series was also made into a charming HBO series.
Rae Spellman from Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files
Teenage Rae grew up in a family of private detectives, so it’s no wonder she’s able to conduct surveillance like a pro before she’s even old enough to drive. This precocious private eye is an expert at gathering evidence to use in what she likes to call “negotiations.” (You might call it blackmail.)
Rae is the true master of the art of the deal. She has a way of inserting herself into potentially dangerous situations, yet somehow managing to come out completely unscathed. As the series progresses, she changes from a plucky kid sister to a confident young woman. This fresh and funny mystery book series is one of the best ways to spend your time in 2020.
Harriet Vane from Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane MysteriesSayers wrote a lot of Lord Peter Wimsey books, but Harriet appears only Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Harriet Vane is a divisive character among fans of Sayers’ stories of an English lord with a bad case of nerves solving mysteries in the 1920s and 30s. With Lord Peter, Sayers created a character that she fell madly in love with. So she wrote herself into the books as his true love. Like Sayers, the character of Harriet Vane is an educated mystery writer with a scandalous past.
Though these books were written 90 years before 2020, it still feels current. Sayers has volumes to say about the position of women at the time. She tackles relationships between the sexes, independence, and the nature of love and honor. These books were written in the 1920s and 30s. You’re getting the straight scoop on how it was at the time. These books are not filtered through the lens of today. Now and again, offensive stuff pops up. These books are definitely not sentimental.
The mysteries are solid and the relationship between these two extremely logical people trying to make sense of love is endearing though sometimes frustrating. As I said, these were written in the 1930s. While, in some ways, Sayers was forward-thinking, in others she is constrained by notions of class and the roles of men and women of her time. Harriet is fiercely logical and values truth above all. She won’t stop until she uncovers what’s really going on, no matter who gets hurt. My favorite of the series is Gaudy Night. The mystery is set at a woman’s college back when the idea of women going to college was still controversial. It’s one of the best books, mystery or not, to read in 2020 or any other year.
Martha Garrett from What The Chat Dragged InFormer FBI Special Agent Martha Garrett spent her career protecting children from predators. Then she saw something so awful that it broke her mind and her spirit. Martha always played by the book to catch the bad guys, but now she’s not sure that’s enough. Starting a new job and a new life, she finds a kindred soul in Seth Christopher. The handsome food blogger survived an ordeal at the hands of child traffickers. Her tattooed, handsome lover is ready to whisk her away to a dream house in the Texas Hill Country, but unspeakable childhood abuse has left him with scars of his own and a dark side he warns Martha she never wants to see.
When child predators start dying, Martha finds herself torn between the law and justice. This dogged protector of the innocent is determined to uncover the truth, no matter what the personal cost. There you have it: seven fierce females featured in the very best mystery books to read in 2020.