20 Must-Read Novels By Female Mystery Authors

The works of female mystery authors is so abundant and high quality that it’s a difficult task to develop a list of must-reads from the classics. This is not surprising as we have previously discussed at great length that crime fiction and mystery is increasingly a woman’s game (see our overview of the 25 Top Female Crime Writers of the Past 50 Years here).

Nevertheless, here comes what we consider essential female and crime fiction reads by female mystery authors. They will delight any fan of mystery genre, young or old for sure.

20. Beat Not the Bones Charlotte Jay

This 1952 novel takes the reader on Stella Warwick’s journey to find out just what happened to her husband in New Guinea. In the story, a young Australian woman comes alone to Marapai on the island of New Guinea to find out why her husband committed suicide. It is hard to believe that drink and debt could have affected David Warwick, a distinguished anthropologist in charge of protecting the natives from exploitation. Stella must penetrate deep into the heart of the jungle to solve the mystery of her husband’s death.

19. Beast in View Margaret Millar

This book is considered to be one of the top 100 mystery novels by the Mystery Writers of America. A classic whodunit and a deep, disturbing study of the dark places of the human psyche…At thirty, Helen Clarvoe is alone: her only visitors are the staff at the hotel where she lives, and her only phone calls come from a stranger. Until that stranger, with a quiet, compelling voice, lures the aloof and financially secure Miss Clarvoe into a world of extortion, pornography, vengeance, madness and murder. But who is the hunter and who is the victim…?

18. Strangers on a Train Patricia Highsmith

Two men meet on a train and decide to commit murders for the other. This is one of Highsmith’s most famous novels and was made into a Hitchcock movie. If you want to know more about the story, here is more detail about the plot: Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train.

But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

17. A Dram of Poison Charlotte Armstrong

This book won the Edgar Award for best novel. And here is a summary of the plot: For fifty-five years, Kenneth Gibson has lived in backwaters. A former army clerk, he makes a quiet living teaching poetry to indifferent undergrads. His life is happily dull until the day he meets Rosemary, a damaged girl whose frailty compels Kenneth to try to make her well. They wed, and as Rosemary recovers from her depression, Gibson falls in love, transforming his world. But his wife will never love him.

She is smitten with their landlord, a dashing young chemical engineer named Paul. Gibson wants to let her go, but he cannot bear to be parted with the first love he has ever known. In Paul’s house is a case of poison, and this love triangle can only end in death.

16. The Hours Before Dawn Celia Fremlin

Fremlin’s famous novel about a woman who believes she is going insane. In this story, Louise Henderson is trapped in a nightmare: the baby cries almost all night, every night, and the other children must be gotten off to school . . . Louise is so tired that she is afraid she is becoming psychotic; why does she have this feeling of apprehension, almost of terror? Is it connected with the lodger, a respectable school teacher? What is happening in the Henderson household? This novel, which won an Edgar in 1957, is one to be read in a single sitting.

15. The Expendable Man Dorothy B. Hughes

Hughes’ novel tells of Hugh Densmore and the sudden accusation towards him of murder. This novel is considered to be one of her best.

14. This Rough Magic Mary Stewart

A novel set in Corfu during a tragic drowning incident. This is just one of Stewart’s many romantic suspense novels. In the story, British actress Lucy Waring believes there is no finer place to be “at liberty” than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide …

13. When in Greece Emma Lathen

Lathen’s novel tells of John Thatcher’s adventure of searching for a murderer in Greece, as well as a man who disappeared along the way. “The American Agatha Christie” & “Nero Wolfe with Portfolio” according to the New York Times sets this mystery in Greece with John Thatcher unraveling the mystery, with the usual cast of characters and great humor.

This is Emma Lathen’s 9th mystery of 24 with John Putnam Thatcher, SVP of the Sloan, third largest bank in the world as the sleuth who gets involved in these mysteries due to emotions obscuring the money, what he has an uncanny ability to find and the murderer with it. In this case an investment has been made in Greece, the Sloan has its man on the spot disappear, the ever grouchy No man Everett Gabler disappears looking for him, and Thatcher must get involved to get them out through various means including 2 of the funniest characters in all mysteries, 2 archeologists. Various goings on, personal and political, happen during the Revolution in Greece at the time.

Miss Corsa, Walter Bowman, George Lancer, and Charlie Trinkham among other regulars. A charming cozy must read for all fans of Agatha Christie, Nero Wolfe, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. 29 more to read. The 25th to 30th and beyond include Thatcher and his daughter, Elizabeth, Head of IT and VC investments, who evolves into the CEO, moves the bank to Ireland for tax and regulatory reasons, and more.

12. Many Deadly Returns Patricia Moyes

Part of the Inspecter Henry Tibbett Series, Tibbett is off to look for the true cause of Lady Crystal Balaclava’s suspicious death. Detective Inspector Henry Tibbet visits the country estate of Lady Crystal Balaclava who, for reasons known only to herself and her Ouija board, feels her life is in imminent danger. And at her birthday party, she dies–from an apparent heart attack.

11. Shroud for a Nightingale P.D. James

One of the novels in James’ Adam Dalgliesh Series, Dalgleish must search to find out what exactly caused the death of two nursing students. Hailed as “mystery at its best” by The New York Times, Shroud for a Nightingale is the fourth book in bestselling author P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh mystery series.

In this story, the young women of Nightingale House are there to learn to nurse and comfort the suffering. But when one of the students plays patient in a demonstration of nursing skills, she is horribly, brutally killed. Another student dies equally mysteriously, and it is up to Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard to unmask a killer who has decided to prescribe murder as the cure for all ills.

10. Tied Up in Tinsel Ngaio Marsh

Part of her Roderick Alleyn Mystery Series, Tied Up in Tinsel tells of Alleyn’s search for a murderer during a Christmas party. In the story, it is Christmas time in an isolated country house and, following a flaming row in the kitchen, there’s murder inside. When a much disliked visiting servant disappears without trace after playing Santa Claus, foul play is at once suspected — and foul play it proves to be. Only suspicion falls not on the staff but on the guests, all so unimpeachably respectable that the very thought of murder in connection with any of them seems almost heresy. When Superintendent Roderick Alleyn returns unexpectedly from a trip to Australia, it is to find his beloved wife in the thick of an intriguing mystery…

9. A Sleeping Life Ruth Rendell

This novel is part of Rendell’s Inspector Wexford Series. In this one, Wexford must find out who murdered the mysterious Rhoda Comfrey. In A Sleeping Life plot, master mystery writer Ruth Rendell unveils an elaborate web of lies and deception painstakingly maintained by a troubled soul. A wallet found in Comfrey’s handbag leads Inspector Wexford to Mr. Grenville West, a writer whose plots revel in the blood, thunder, and passion of dramas of old; whose current whereabouts are unclear; and whose curious secretary–the plain Polly Flinders–provides the Inspector with more questions than answers. And when a second Grenville West comes to light, Wexford faces a dizzying array of possible scenarios–and suspects–behind the Comfrey murder.

8. Dupe Liza Cody

Cody writes of a family searching for answers after their daughter is killed in a car accident. Winner of Britain’s John Creasey Award for Best First Novel of 1980. In the story, Anna quit the London police force because it was a dead end for women, but her job with Brierly Security isn’t a whole lot livelier. Her boss doesn’t much approve of female investigators, and her assignments tend toward the frustratingly genteel.

The Jackson case doesn’t look like a big improvement. Ambitious, unpleasant young Deirdre Jackson has died, the apparent victim of a car accident on a lonely stretch of highway, and her parents want to know what their black-sheep daughter was up to in her last few months. Anna’s job, she knows, is to ask a few questions, write a report, and collect the Jacksons’ check. But the more questions she asks about Dee’s life, the more questions arise about her death. Answering them could land Anna in the hospital . . . or the morgue. But it could also be her ticket out of the pink-collar ghetto.

7. A Dark-Adapted Eye Barbara Vine

Vine, which was another name of author Ruth Rendell, is based during World War II and tells of a family going through major problems, which may lead to murder. In the story, Faith Severn has never understood why the willful matriarch of her high-society family, aunt Vera Hillyard, snapped and murdered her own beloved sister. But long after Vera is condemned to hang, a journalist’s startling discoveries allow Faith to perceive her family’s story in a new light.

6. The Red Scream Mary Willis Walker

One of the great female-driven thrillers we have read in years. In the story, Texas-based crime reporter Molly Cates has just  published her first book, describing the  blood-curdling exploits of serial killer Louie Bronk. Now on  death row, Louie’s sentence is about to be carried  out. Molly will be there as a witness, and she  wants to write about it–the final coda to Louie’s  story.

But suddenly, she’s being strongly  discouraged by her boss at the Lone Star  Monthly and by Charlie McFarland, the millionaire  real estate developer whose first wife, Tiny, was  Bronk’s most famous victim–and the only one whose  murder is a capital offense. Then Molly starts to  receive dark hints that Louie may not have killed  Tiny after all.

There is another murder following  Louis’s M.O.–one he could not have committed.  The veracity of Molly’s book is threatened–and then  her very life. Caught between a rock and a hard  place, Molly realizes that by attempting to save  Louis she is putting her own life on the line, and  discrediting her own work. Mary Willis Walker brings  a lusty new voice to the mystery scene. Already  recognized for her first novel, she has now created  a character just cheeky and gusty enough to take  her place among the top ranks of female  protagonists such as Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta.

5. The Sculptress Minette Walters

This novel won an Edgar Award for best novel in 1994. In the story, In prison, they call her the Sculptress for the strange figurines she carves– symbols of the day she hacked her mother and sister to pieces and reassembled them in a blood-drenched jigsaw. Sullen, menacing, grotesquely fat, Olive Martin is burned-out journalist Rosalind Leigh’s only hope of getting a new book published.

But as she interviews Olive in her cell, Roz finds flaws in the Sculptress’s confession. Is she really guilty as she insists? Drawn into Olive’s world of obsessive lies and love, nothing can stop Roz’s pursuit of the chilling, convoluted truth. Not the tidy suburbanites who would rather forget the murders, not an attack on her life– not even the thought of what might happen if the Sculptress went free…

4. Winter and Night S.J. Rozan

This book is the winner of the 2003 Edgar Award for Best Novel. In the story, in the middle of the night, private investigator Bill Smith is awakened by a call from the NYPD. They’re holding a 15-year-old kid named Gary — a kid Bill knows. But before Bill can find out what is going on, Gary escapes Bill’s custody into the dark night and unfamiliar streets.

Bill, with the help of his partner Lydia Chin, tries to find the missing teen and uncover what it is that led him so far from home. Tracking Gary’s family to a small town in New Jersey, Bill finds himself in a town where nothing matters but high school football, where the secrets of the past – both the town’s and Bill’s own – threaten to destroy the present. And if Bill is to have any chance of saving Gary and preventing a tragedy, he has to both unravel a long buried crime and confront the darkness of his own past.

3. The Evil Wish Jean Potts

This novel, which was once nominated for an Edgar Award, tells the tale of a pair of sisters who seem to have an interest in committing murder.

2. The Make-Believe Man Elizabeth Fenwick

This 1960s era book by Fenwick is about a family who seems to be questioning the new guest in their mother’s house.

1. Operation Alcestic Maggie Rennert

This 1975 novel by Rennert tells of the murder of a professor. It’s up to Detective Guy Silvestri to find out just what happened.