First of the Best: American Female P.I. Novels

shelved under Fiction and Mystery

Each of these books is the first in a great "female private investigator" series (a relatively recent sub-genre of mystery fiction). They're not necessarily the best of their respective series, but they are all very good. Start with one of these, and you'll be hooked.


Edwin of the Iron Shoes

by Marcia Muller

26 books featuring Sharon McCone

As Sue Grafton says, "Marcia Muller is the founding mother of the contemporary female hard boiled private eye." Sharon McCone's career with the All-Souls Legal Cooperative in San Francisco starts here, investigating a murder of an antique store owner.


A Is for Alibi

by Sue Grafton

20 books featuring Kinsey Millhone

In the fictional California coast community of Santa Teresa, Kinsey Millhone takes on tough cases, gets into her share of scrapes, and leans on her few friends who don't mind her rough edges. She has one all-purpose non-wrinkling black dress she keeps in her car just in case, but mostly you'll find her in jeans and sneakers. At least once per book, Kinsey goes to McDonald's for a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, but presumably her runs on the beach counterbalance these dietary lapses.


Indemnity Only

by Sara Paretsky

12 books featuring V.I. Warshawski

Victoria Iphigenia is the Polish-Italian-American daughter of a cop. She's pretty tough Chicago girl, but can also be quite feminine. I learned about Manolo Blahniks from V.I. decades before Sex And The City. The plots often feature political shenanigans (it is Chicago, after all) and corporate malfeasance.


A Trouble of Fools

by Linda Barnes

12 books featuring Carlotta Carlyle

Boston P.I. Carlotta Carlyle is 6-foot tall red-headed ex-cop who plays blues guitar and acts as a big sister. She moonlights as a cab driver as well, and has a mob-connected on-again-off-again boyfriend, Sam Gianelli.


Baltimore Blues

by Laura Lippman

Featuring Tess Monaghan. If you know how many of these books there are in this series, let us know.

Tess (short for Theresa Esther) is another melting pot baby, half Irish, half Jewish. Baltimore is her territory. When the newspaper she worked at folded, Tess fell in to private investigation. She's an avid crew rower. Baltimore really comes alive in these books; I've never been there, but I feel as if I have.


Goodnight, Irene

by Jan Burke

These next three are not strictly P.I. novels. The protagonists are technically involved in other professions. But the characters and the plots have a similar feel and quality to the classic P.I. genre.

9 books featuring Irene Kelly

Irene is a newspaper reporter in a fictional California coastal town called Las Piernas. She's quite likeable, and the plots are great.



by Patricia Cornwell

13 books featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta

Kay Scarpetta is a Virginia state medical examiner working in Richmond. These books are a therefore a bit more gruesome, and the antagonists quite a bit more creepy. I read the first 5 or 6 in this series and found them impossible to put down. Later, as her niece Lucy comes on the scene, I found the plots a bit stretched and implausible, and Kay started to get on my nerves. But Cornwell continues to be a blockbuster bestseller.


One for the Money

by Janet Evanovich

14 books featuring Stephanie Plum

If you read the Stephanie Plum series, you will be so amused that you'll overlook the highly implausible set up. Stephanie works as a bounty hunter for her bailbondsman cousin Vinnie in Trenton, New Jersey. In this first book, she has to bring in Joe Morelli, an old flame who has been wrongly accused of being a corrupt cop. Joe, one of the more appealing fictional boyfriends, will be a regular character in the series. Chambersburg, the Italian-American neighborhood where Stephanie grew up, is well depicted. I went to graduate school nearby, and remember going into the "Burg" for very Sopranos-esque dinner date. I always look forward to the new Stephanie Plum mystery — I know it might be a bit silly, but she's one of my favorite characters.

This book also appears on New Jersey, One Book at a Time