Throwback Thursday: 2018 was a thrilling year for women in crime

Several heavyweights of crime writing have sidelined their male heroes in favour of tough, baddie-busting women, writes Sue de Groot

28 March 2019 - 11:00 By sue de groot

Published in the Sunday Times (16/12/2019)

It is not possible to compile a list of the year ’s best thrillers without setting some boundaries. First, what counts as a thriller? Some would say only those books in which menace stalks, blood drips and terror freezes one’s hand to the page. Others would include any novel ripe with intrigue and thick with anticipation, or anything involving a crime.

Collins English Dictionary helpfully suggests that “if something gives you a thrill, it gives you a sudden feeling of great excitement, pleasure, or fear”. A good thriller, if you ask me, should combine all three elements: excitement at the thought of having a book to get back to in which you are longing to know what happens next, pleasure in the actual reading of well chosen words and a carefully crafted plot, and fear at what you are going to do with yourself once you finish the book and the pleasure and excitement it delivered have ended.

There have been plenty of thrillers published this year that fit those criteria. To narrow it down, I’ve picked those books in which women are central, because there seems to have been a decided swing towards strong female protagonists in the crime genre.

To start with, three crime writers at the top of their game, all men, promoted women to star status in their latest novels. Dark Sacred Night (Sphere, R295) is the first of what promise to be many “Ballard & Bosch” books, which will probably slide entirely over to Ballard (as will Rankin’s to Clarke) when Bosch finally hangs up his handcuffs. He’s still on active service in this novel, but without the support of Detective Renee Ballard, finding out who murdered a teenage runaway would have taken at least three more books. Ballard, who has been demoted to night shift after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a fellow officer in her previous posting, is probably also a sign of things to come - how the #MeToo movement has begun to infiltrate traditional novels about policing, particularly in the US. 

Ian Rankin’s In A House of Lies (Orion, R330) might be billed as the newest in the John Rebus saga set in Edinburgh, but Rebus himself, being retired, plays no more than a supporting role while the heavy solving of a complicated murder falls to his former protégé, the formidable Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. As in most Rebuses, much of the action involves political infighting and corruption in the police force. Being a woman does not make Clarke any less of a force to be reckoned with when faced with Machiavellian brutes in blue.

Michael Connelly, whose series of police procedurals involving LAPD detective Harry Bosch have been made into a spectacularly successful TV series, has also brought in a woman to help his limping hero get things done. 

Third among these giants is David Baldacci. The prolific author, who has created dozens of male crime-solving prototypes, chose 2018 to give birth to his first woman supercop, special agent Atlee Pine, a weightlifter who almost made it to the Olympics and now works in an isolated regional FBI office near the Grand Canyon. Long Road to Mercy (Pan Macmillan, R290) is stuffed full of more supervillain crime clichés than all the James Bond movies put together, but its tough heroine and her prim secretary sidekick give it a vivid freshness.

Mick Herron, the British writer whose work has lit up the world of crime spy fiction like a gamma-ray burst, gave us three new books this year. One of them, This Is What Happened ( John Murray, R295), is a standalone novel, not part of his Slough House spy series. It is about a man and two women (because telling you anything else would spoil the plot) and while it is as funny and as twisted as only Herron can be, it thrums with an undertone of poignancy reminiscent of William Trevor in Felicia’s Journey. Apart from the anguished anticipation aroused by the plot, Herron’s ability to empathetically inhabit the skin of a woman is nothing short of astounding.

New on the scene is AJ Finn, who most people assumed to be a female author when they read The Woman in the Window (Harper Collins, R285), in which a woman with severe agoraphobia is sucked into a chilling mystery involving her neighbours.

This may have been an intentional bit of misdirection, given that the author ’s gender was not mentioned anywhere, but it soon emerged that AJ Finn is the pseudonym of New Yorker Daniel Mallory, who until the runaway success of his debut novel was a book editor. The plot of the book - a kind of homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window but much more twisted and worthy of being dubbed “the new Gone Girl” - delivers many more sucker-punch surprises than the fact it is written by a man.

Lastly, one of the most exciting new crime novelists to hit bookshops is Leye Adenle, whose second novel starring Amaka Mbadiwe - the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat and a lawyer with a burning sense of social justice - was published this year. In When Trouble Sleeps (Cassava Press, R230), Amaka has to negotiate the political intricacies of a crooked gubernatorial election in Lagos while trying to save young women from slavery and herself from destruction. This is one of those rare books that literally does deliver “a thrill a minute” in its switchback roller-coaster ride with unforgettable characters through a city painted in electric colours.

Women crime writers also made waves this year - Camilla Lackberg ’s The Girl in the Woods (HarperCollins, R285) is perhaps the finest yet in her Fjällbacka series, and the incomparable Louise Penny’s Kingdom of the Blind (Sphere, R375) is as gripping a crime story as ever involving an ancient will, a Québec winter and a pet duck that swears. There are many more that deserve to be on this list, but you have to stop somewhere, as James Patterson might say in about 2048. @deGrootS1