Book Article

The Sisters of Suspense

The sisters of suspense -- Women mystery novelists have taken to putting heroines on the job as cops, lawyers, and private eyes

Sue Grafton's only peer on the best-seller lists is Sara Paretsky, whose novels featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski keep getting better (Blood Shot and Burn Marks are her most recent). Grafton and Paretsky reinvented the female sleuth as a tough, independent professional capable of collaring a criminal with her own two hands — or fists, if need be. Following their lead, women mystery novelists have put heroines on the job as private investigators, police officers, and lawyers in a wide variety of contemporary series.

Private Eyes

Sharon McCone
Marcia Muller pioneered the modern woman PI in 1977, when she introduced McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes. McCone has a tart tongue and a soft heart; both are helpful in dealing with the flamboyant San Francisco types she encounters in her work.

Carlotta Carlyle
Linda Barnes' redheaded, cab-driving investigator quotes her grandmother's Yiddish proverbs and acts as a Big Sister to a Hispanic girl in a Boston-based series that includes The Snake Tattoo and Coyote.

Catherine Sayler
She may specialize in corporate crime, but Sayler, a black belt in aikido, is no white-collar wimp. To date, Linda Grant has written two adventures for her PI: Random Access Murder and Blind Trust.

Lawyers and Cops

Jill Smith
Susan Dunlap's homicide detective loves Berkeley, Calif., but the city's volatile mix of combative '60s holdouts and sleazy '80s entrepreneurs regularly tests her decency and good sense in such books as Too Close to the Edge and Karma.

Cass Jameson
In Dead Man's Thoughts and Where Nobody Dies, a former legal-aid lawyer deals with real crooks and impoverished clients. The complex characters are well drawn by Carolyn Wheat, who once worked for legal aid.

Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma
Both of attorney Lia Matera's tough, smart protagonists have jettisoned their counterculture backgrounds for the legal fast track. Jansson tries to reconcile her progressive past with her new profession in a series that includes Hidden Agenda and Prior Convictions. Di Palma, however, displays no regrets and precious few scruples in The Smart Money and The Good Fight.

Originally posted May 24, 1991 Published in issue #67 May 24, 1991 Order article reprints