The best historical crime books with spunky women protagonists

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an ecologist who loves history. I love incorporating elements from the past in my non-fiction and fiction writing. I’ve learnt so much about parts of the world I have never visited from historical mysteries, especially those with strong female characters. My grandmother, born in 1907 during the British Raj, fought just to go to school. I love books that offer an insight into the lives and thoughts of fierce, feisty women like her, everyday women who did extraordinary things. Each of the books I’ve selected is the first in a series, and I hope they give you endless hours of reading pleasure, just as they did for me.

I wrote...

The Bangalore Detectives Club

By Harini Nagendra,

Book cover of The Bangalore Detectives Club

What is my book about?

The first in a charming, joyful crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband, Ramu. 

When clever, headstrong Kaveri moves to Bangalore to marry handsome young doctor Ramu, she's resigned herself to a quiet life. But that all changes the night of the party at the Century Club, where she escapes to the garden for some peace and quiet but spots an uninvited guest in the shadows. Half an hour later, the party turns into a murder scene. To save a vulnerable woman connected to the crime, Kaveri launches a private investigation to find the killer, tracing his steps from brothels to bungalows as the case leads her into a hotbed of danger, sedition, and intrigue in Bangalore's darkest alleyways. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Crocodile on the Sandbank

Harini Nagendra Why did I love this book?

Amelia Peabody, the heroine of this series, is that rarity, a female archeologist elbowing her way into digs and expeditions, the domain of men in 1890s Egypt. Amelia fearlessly deals with master criminals and tomb robbers, using a stout belt and large umbrella, solving crimes with panache.

In this book, the first of the series, she rescues a damsel in distress, falls in love, and uncovers the secret of a walking mummy.

It’s a rollicking romp of a read but doesn’t shy away from showing the divisions of the times between Europeans and ‘natives,’ men and women, rich and poor. The author is an Egyptologist herself, and her expertise shows through; as an academic myself, I’m very inspired by her work! This is one of my absolute favourites.

By Elizabeth Peters,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Crocodile on the Sandbank as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Amelia Peabody is Elizabeth Peters' most brilliant and best-loved creation, a thoroughly Victorian feminist who takes the stuffy world of archaeology by storm with her shocking men's pants and no-nonsense attitude!

In this first adventure, our headstrong heroine decides to use her substantial inheritance to see the world. On her travels, she rescues a gentlewoman in distress - Evelyn Barton-Forbes - and the two become friends. The two companions continue to Egypt where they face mysteries, mummies and the redoubtable Radcliffe Emerson, an outspoken archaeologist, who doesn't need women to help him solve mysteries -- at least that's what he…

Book cover of Her Royal Spyness

Harini Nagendra Why did I love this book?

Who wouldn’t love a fun book about royals and murder?

Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, Georgie for short, is waaay down the line of people to inherit, 34th in the queue, to be precise. And she’s flat broke. Thrown out of the Scotland castle that is her childhood home by her greedy sister-in-law, Georgie cleans homes in secret to earn a bit of money.

Things are just beginning to look up when she finds a dead Frenchman in her bathtub! If being suspected of murder is not enough, she’s also been given a job by the Queen to spy on the playboy Prince of Wales.

Georgie is irrepressible and full of spunk. She’s clumsy, makes mistakes, and fails often, but never gives up. A most relatable heroine.

By Rhys Bowen,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Her Royal Spyness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The New York Times bestselling author of the Molly Murphy and Constable Evan Evans mysteries turns her attentions to "a feisty new heroine to delight a legion of Anglophile readers."*

London, 1932. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the English throne, is flat broke. She's bolted Scotland, her greedy brother, and her fish-faced betrothed. London is a place where she'll experience freedom, learn life lessons aplenty, do a bit of spying for HRH-oh, and find a dead Frenchman in her tub. Now her new job is to clear her long family name...

Book cover of Grey Mask

Harini Nagendra Why did I love this book?

Patricia Wentworth is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve read.

This is the first in her Miss Silver series, featuring an elderly lady who looks a lot like Miss Marple but pre-dates her. While still within the cozy genre, parts of this book, especially the opening section, where the mysterious man in the gray mask makes his first appearance, can make your spine tingle with that delicious feeling of tension that only a good mystery book brings.

Like Miss Marple, Miss Silver is adept at deducing what the various protagonists might do based on her reading of their psychology, but the characters are much better fleshed out in these books, as is the period in which it is set. And the romance is a definite bonus.

By Patricia Wentworth,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Grey Mask as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Governess-turned-detective Miss Silver investigates a deadly conspiratorial ring

Charles Moray has come home to England to collect his inheritance. After four years wandering the jungles of India and South America, the hardy young man returns to the manor of his birth, where generations of Morays have lived and died. Strangely, he finds the house unlocked, and sees a light on in one of its abandoned rooms. Eavesdropping, he learns of a conspiracy to commit a fearsome crime.

Never one for the heroic, Charles’s first instinct is to let the police settle it. But then he hears her voice. Margaret, his…

Book cover of The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

Harini Nagendra Why did I love this book?

While this wasn’t written as a historical, it was published in the 1960s, so it qualifies as one.

Mrs. Pollifax is another unlikely spunky heroine who’s one of my favorites. A suburban housewife and widow with grown children and an empty nest, Pollifax is so bored with gardening and yoga that she volunteers to help the CIA! What was supposed to be a short and safe trip to Mexico City turns into something far more sinister, and she ends up in an Albanian prison.

It could be a wild and unbelievable read, but in this author’s skillful hands, the plot comes together perfectly. Gillman’s sense of society and cultural context is nuanced, and I love how her books bring out her belief in the strength of innate human kindness.

By Dorothy Gilman,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mrs Emily Pollifax is a 60-ish widow wanting more from life than teas and garden club meetings. In search of adventure, she decides to offer her services to the CIA - who, after all, would spot a suburban grandmother as a cold war secret agent? - and adventure she finds. Her first assignment, in Mexico City, doesn't sound dangerous until something goes wrong. She suddenly finds herself abducted across the world, embroiled in quite a hot Cold War... and her abductors find themselves entangled with one unbelievably feisty lady. Armed with only an open mind and a little karate, Mrs…

Book cover of The Frangipani Tree Mystery

Harini Nagendra Why did I love this book?

Set in 1930s Singapore, written by one of the island country’s finest writers, this book features a most unlikely protagonist, SuLin, a young local girl hired as a nanny in the British Governor’s household.

Dealing with childhood polio, labeled a ‘bad-luck’ child, SuLin yearns for a life where she can become a journalist of her own standing, not just someone’s wife or mistress. Just like the other feisty women in these other series, she’s beset by challenges, including those of her own making, but she never gives up!

I’ve been a huge fan of Yu’s contemporary Aunty Lee series, set in contemporary Singapore, and I loved this one too. The descriptions of Singapore’s lush tropical landscape, the trees, and the food–especially the food–are too good to pass up.

By Ovidia Yu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Frangipani Tree Mystery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First in a delightfully charming crime series set in 1930s Singapore, introducing amateur sleuth Su Lin, a local girl stepping in as governess for the Acting Governor of Singapore.

1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly - and in mysterious circumstances - mission school-educated local girl Su Lin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.

But then another murder at the residence occurs and it…

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By Lisa Redfern,

Book cover of Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

Lisa Redfern Author Of Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author DNA genealogy researcher California history storyteller & media maker Cartophile Close-call kefir exploder A philomath with too many books

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What is my book about?

Crossing is a vividly human re-imagining of the love, sacrifices, and accomplishments that two Chinese brothers - American Immigrants - experience as they travel to California to build the Transcontinental Railroad. 

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