She’s Beauty; She’s Grace; She’s On the Case: 6 Female True Detectives You Oughtta Know
In terms of dangerous sentiments to express on the Internet, this is right up there with “Chris Pratt is not as charming as he thinks he is,” but … I thought Season 2 of HBO’s True Detective was pretty good. Was it a step down from the trippy, Flannery O’Connor-meets-Lovecraft heights of the first season? Definitely. Did Vince Vaughn have Matthew McConaughey’s aptitude for delivering overwrought soliloquies without sounding ridiculous? Decidedly not. But it still worked as a solid, twisty-turny SoCal noir, and a big part of that was Rachel McAdams’ performance as Det. Ani Bezzerides.
Ani could have gone very wrong as a character; McAdams, like Vaughn, is best known for lighter fare (The Notebook isn’t a comedy, but it’s still lighter than True Detective), and the character clearly existed in the first place largely in response to complaints about the first season’s lack of three-dimensional female characters. But McAdams’ performance was one of the highlights of the season, and Bezzerides was far from what such characters usually end up being when created out of a sense of obligation—you know the type, the one who not only defies gender roles but has active contempt for femininity, and other women.
Ani is, instead, a traumatized but tough-as-nails knife-fighter with a deep protective instinct for women and girls. She deserved a better season of television to exist in. With that in mind, if she wasn’t enough to save the season for you, here are six other female true detectives from literature and TV to check out while you cross your fingers for a better season 3.
Molly Solverson (Fargo)
For fans of: Peggy Carter, Jessica Fletcher
For all the gore and gunplay in both the Coen brothers’ film Fargo and this stellar FX anthology series inspired by it, they are, at their core, stories about the triumph of kind, simple people over evil, venal ones, and Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is the best possible example. As covered here before, Molly is everything a TV cop, male or female, usually isn’t—chubby, sweet, and gently goofy—but that doesn’t stop her from being a brilliant detective and by far the smartest cop in her small-town, male-dominated Minnesota department. “My soft little girl in a hard world of drills and needles,” her ex-cop father frets.
“I’m 31, dad,” she replies. “I carry a gun.”
Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency)
For fans of: Miss Marple, Columbo
Precious, the aptly-named heroine of Alexander McCall’s book series and the Jill Scott-starring HBO series based on it, is even less like a typical TV cop than Molly. A “traditionally-built” private eye based in a rapidly industrializing post-colonial Botswana, Mma Ramotswe’s cases are almost always small-scale, local, and non-violent—a far cry from the bloody, vaguely supernatural milieu of True Detective and Fargo. Despite this, her empathy and warmth on top of her deductive skills make her on the most genuinely nice characters in modern literature.
Cassie Maddox (The Likeness by Tana French)
For fans of: Veronica Mars, Sydney Bristow
Cassie first appears in French’s debut, In the Woods, as a supporting character, but it’s in the followup, where she narrates and stars, that she really gets her time to shine. A former undercover cop who’s now a detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad, Cassie meets with her old mentor Frank Mackey and is informed that a woman has been found murdered, and not only does she look exactly like Cassie, she was carrying an ID bearing the name of Cassie’s old cover.
Cassie and Frank develop a plan to pretend the woman survived her stabbing and insert Cassie into her old life to discover the identity of her killer. Cassie is French’s only female protagonist to date, but she’s by far my favorite, a tough, quick-witted social chameleon whose internal monologue contains some of the most gorgeous word-porn I’ve ever read.
Angie Gennaro (The Kenzie/Gennaro series by Dennis Lehane)
For fans of: Ani Bezzerides, Jane Rizzoli
Angie’s partner Patrick Kenzie narrates this private-eye series (and the damn good movie adaptation of the third book, Gone Baby Gone) but it’s clear that both Patrick and Lehane (who named her after his wife) consider Angie the brains and heart of the operation. To give you some idea, Angie, a native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, is the granddaughter of a notorious Mafia boss, but throughout the series puts the fear of God in shitty men without even telling them that. Angie, the survivor of a horrifically abusive marriage to her childhood sweetheart, shares Ani’s drive to keep weaker women safe, at one point walking out of an interview with an emotionally abusive father with a warning she’ll punch him in the face if she has to stay.
Sonya Cross (The Bridge)
For fans of: Will Graham, Temperance Brennan
Sonya (Diane Kruger), the co-protagonist of this sadly defunct FX series, holds a special place in my heart for one major reason: she’s on the autism spectrum, much like Saga Noren, her counterpart in the original Danish/Swedish coproduction. The spectrum is fairly well-represented within the crime genre, but Sonya’s autism doesn’t imbue her with Holmes-ian superpowers; rather, it manifests in realistic, all-too-familiar ways, such as difficulties with relationships and the heartbreaking scene where a coworker humiliates her by calling her “crazy” in front of their captain.
It’s not all bleak, though; Sonya’s banter, such as it is, with Marco (Demian Bichir), the streetwise Mexican cop she pairs up with to catch a serial killer who stalks the El Paso/Juarez border, gives us some of the funniest scenes in the series.
Gabriella Versado (Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes)
For fans of: Olivia Benson, Dana Scully
I don’t even know where to begin in praising Beukes’ work in general or this book in particular. An awe-inspiring, genre-straddling lovechild of Hannibal, Black Mirror and The Wire, this 2014 novel finds Versado, a single mother and detective in the Detroit PD, pursuing a killer who turns his victims into nightmarish modern art, while struggling to look after her teenage daughter, Layla, who’s gotten into the dangerous hobby of conducting vigilante sting operations against creeps she meets online. Gaby’s strength and badassery don’t manifest in gunplay or tough talk, but rather in the form of her weary, dignified strength as she balances her responsibilities with confronting unimaginable, quite possibly otherworldly evil.
(featured image via HBO)
Zack Budryk is a Washington, D.C-based journalist who writes about healthcare, feminism, autism and pop culture. His work has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, Ravishly, Jezebel, Inside Higher Ed, and Style Weekly, and he recently completed a novel, but don’t hold that against him. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife, Raychel, who pretends out of sheer modesty that she was not the model for Ygritte, and two cats. He blogs at autisticbobsaginowski.tumblr.com and tweets as ZackBudryk, appropriately enough.
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