by Libby Hellmann
Now that most of the “Best of 2012” lists have come and gone, I thought I’d weigh in, not with a 2012 list, nor an exhaustive analysis. It’s simply the 6 female authors I will enthusiastically read—whatever and whenever they publish. It’s not a static list, either; some of the writers just appeared, while others have been on it for years. And, just for the purposes of this post, I'm excluding my Top Suspense girl friends, Naomi Hirahara and Vicki Hendricks, both of whom you should read. Right Now.
Which brings me to one of my theories about the book industry. I’m beginning to think an author gets 10 years in this business. If, in that time, their protagonist hasn’t changed, developed, or grown (something others call a “dynamic protagonist”), or if they haven’t reinvented themselves with a new series or sub-genre, their readership wanes. I see it happening. Authors who used to be “must-reads” aren’t any more.
Part of it is due to the broadening of the industry through indie publishing, but I tend to think most of it is due to authors writing too much of the same for too long. Given that I’m coming up on a decade myself—my first novel was published 10 years ago—I’m sensitive on that point.
But I digress. Here are my favorite 6. I think they’ve safely crossed the 10 year threshold or soon will. (Btw, I’ll be writing about my favorite male authors next time). They’re the kind of writers that make me drop everything else that’s going on just so I can finish their novels.
Sara Paretsky is the only author who’s been on my list since I started reading crime fiction. I read her V.I. Warshawski books as well as her stand-alones because I know I’ll always get a good read, a terrific story, as well as something to chew on. Yes, Sara wears her heart on her sleeve, but that appeals to me. I always know where she’s coming from, and she usually explores an issue that needs to be explored. Plus V.I. has changed over the years; she’s mellowed, she’s not as strident, and she even has developed a sense of humor. She’s also aware of her own limitations in a way that she wasn’t when the series started. But that doesn’t keep her from railing against injustice, whatever its guise. If you haven’t read her recently, I highly recommend HARD BALL.
Gillian Flynn delivers the most lyrical, gorgeous prose of anyone in the crime genre these days, and the paradox between the beauty of her prose and the evil of her subject matter takes my breath away. I know everyone has been talking about GONE GIRL, but you should start with SHARP OBJECTS and then DARK PLACES. It’s in these crime novels that you will find a Machiavellian spirit laced with a splashof Pollyanna: dark, but a hint of light at the end of the tunnel.
Mo Hayder jumped onto the list after I read THE DEVIL OF NANKING, and I am slowly making my way through her other novels. Like Gillian Flynn, Mo Hayder’s prose is precise and lyrical, and the crimes she details are often horrid… sometimes almost unbearable. But I admire her courage. And her ability to write a believable, persuasive police procedural series featuring a male character, JACK CAFFERY. And, of course, the way she writes women is fabulous. I always get lost in her stories and race through them, which makes me sad when I finish. I want more.
I first read Val McDermid’s PLACE OF EXECUTION and was entranced by her story-telling abilities as well as her straightforward depiction of crime and evil. I have not been disappointed. She’s another author who can write men as well as women (have you noticed the best female authors tend to write men better than male authors write women?), but when she’s writing female characters, her books really take off. Carol Jordan could be a doppelganger for every woman who is afraid to reveal her shortcomings and yet defiantly remains female. Not that I dislike Tony Hill. On the contrary. I loved THE TORMENT OF OTHERS. And I love Kate Brannigan. Val is the kind of writer that sweeps me into her world from the first page, and I want to stay there forever.
Karin Slaughter: I read her early novels, but she didn’t capture me until her Will Trent series. Will’s unique mix of genius and shame is appealing, and I fell in love with him right away. At the same time, Slaughter’s female protagonists deal with the duality of femininity and strength in an utterly plausible, fascinating way without resorting to stereotype. Even her side characters have their own back story (I’m thinking of Lena) which makes them memorable. I don’t understand those who say her writing is too graphic… but how can we really understand evil if we don’t see its manifestations in the physical world? I havent read her latest yet, but it's on my TBR pile.
From THE SURGEON, I discovered that Tess Gerritsen writes pure unadulterated suspense, and I love having to keep turning the pages to find out how her characters are going to get out alive. Like the others, Tess doesn’t shy away from detailing the dark side of human behavior. But, as I said above, how can we understand the nature of evil if we don’t see it in all its guises? Tess makes sure that we do. It may not be pretty, but the satisfaction of seeing Jane Rizzoli and/or Maura Isles prevail against it in each outing is seductive. At least to me. Happily, I’m behind on some of her books, so I have some great reading to look forward to.
OK. This is just my personal list — I know I’ve left out tons of excellent authors… but what do you think of these six?