The best books about real women in criminology

Why am I passionate about this?

I was frustrated by stories of gilded-age women who floundered around and were pitied because of the limitations society put on them. I thought the heroine of House of Mirth was not heroine but a loser. It seemed to me there must be other women out there who weren’t just sitting around bemoaning their predicament. Since I’m a mystery writer I was especially pleased to find some women who were out there doing things, even in criminology. Finding Frances Glessner Lee was the icing on the cake when I learned that she is known as the Mother of Forensic Science. Had to be great stories there.


I wrote...

Molasses Murder in a Nutshell: A Nutshell Murder Mystery

By Frances McNamara,

Book cover of Molasses Murder in a Nutshell: A Nutshell Murder Mystery

What is my book about?

In January 1919 tank bursts in Boston’s North End, flooding the neighborhood with molasses. When a woman is found murdered in the wreckage, Frances Glessner Lee asks her old friend, medical examiner Dr. George Magrath to help exonerate a young serviceman. This is the first in a series of fictional stories roughly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Set in the 1920s, these stories imagine Frances Glessner Lee working with Dr. George Magrath to learn about “legal medicine” as forensic science was known at the time. Working with Magrath provided the foundation for the crime scene miniatures for which Frances Glessner Lee has become known as the Mother of Forensic Science.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Frances McNamara Why did I love this book?

A book of photographs that show the Nutshell Studies in great detail.

This book inspired me to learn more about the wealthy woman who spent so much time creating these hugely detailed crime scenes.

Why? It took more research to learn that she had developed a passion for teaching investigators to follow the old saying "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

It seems to me this is what the investigator is always trying to do in mystery stories, like the 9 I had already written in my Emily Cabot Mysteries. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures suggest a lot of stories.

By Corinne May Botz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death offers readers an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a master criminal investigator. Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy grandmother, founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936 and was later appointed captain in the New Hampshire police. In the 1940s and 1950s she built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Still used in forensic training today, the eighteen Nutshell dioramas, on a scale of 1:12, display an astounding level of detail: pencils write, window shades move, whistles blow, and clues to the…


Book cover of 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics

Frances McNamara Why did I love this book?

The Nutshell Studies are now located in Maryland at the medical examiner’s office.

Goldfarb worked there and his book provides information on how Frances Glessner Lee became involved in the work of her brother’s old friend Dr. George Meredith Magrath who was medical examiner in Boston (Suffolk County).

His work demonstrated the need for a technically proficient medical examiner system to replace the old coroner system and for police detectives to be trained to deal with a crime scene. Called Legal Medicine at the time, this was the beginning of forensics as we know it now.

It’s fascinating how one woman used her money and influence to establish training for law enforcement officials even after her mentor Dr. Magrath died.

By Bruce Goldfarb,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked 18 Tiny Deaths as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A captivating blend of history, women in science, and true crime, 18 Tiny Deaths tells the story of how one woman changed the face of forensics forever.

Frances Glessner Lee, born a socialite to a wealthy and influential Chicago family in the 1870s, was never meant to have a career, let alone one steeped in death and depravity.

Yet she developed a fascination with the investigation of violent crimes, and made it her life's work. Best known for creating the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dollhouses that appear charming―until you notice the macabre little details: an overturned…


Book cover of Twenty Years at Hull House

Frances McNamara Why did I love this book?

Hull House was the famous settlement house on the West Side of Chicago where a group of mostly women attempted to change the lives of their immigrant neighbors by living among them.

Although the work brought cultural and artistic opportunities to the poor, the women also began to work on political and legal issues. Changes to juvenile justice and occupational health laws as well as labor laws came out of the work of women who couldn’t even vote at the time.

That they were able to have such influence is intriguing.

By Jane Addams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Twenty Years at Hull House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Twenty Years at Hull House, the acclaimed memoir of social reformer Jane Addams, is presented here complete with all sixty-three of the original illustrations and the biographical notes.

A landmark autobiography in terms of opening the eyes of Americans to the plight of the industrial revolution, Twenty Years at Hull House has been applauded for its unflinching descriptions of the poverty and degradation of the era. Jane Addams also details the grave ill-health she suffered during and after her childhood, giving the reader insight into the adversity which she would re-purpose into a drive to alleviate the suffering of others.…


Book cover of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

Frances McNamara Why did I love this book?

Ida B. Wells was a journalist. She was also an organizer of an anti-lynching campaign.

She’s a wonderful example of a woman who ignored the limitations the world of the time set on her to do what she felt was needed. She and others collected accounts of lynchings, many of them from white newspapers and published them to force society to confront the fact that they were happening.

As a young woman she sued a railroad for physically ejecting her from a carriage because she was African American. She won.

She’s just a great example of a young woman bucking the system. I’m so glad my feminine forebearers did!

By Ida B. Wells,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Crusade for Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"She fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader, long before men or women of any race entered the arena; and the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given in the history of the country."-Alfreda M. Duster

Ida B. Wells is an American icon of truth telling. Born to slaves, she was a pioneer of investigative journalism, a crusader against lynching, and a tireless advocate for suffrage, both for women and for African Americans. She co-founded the NAACP, started the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, and was a…


Book cover of Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform

Frances McNamara Why did I love this book?

This book introduced me to some women who had an impact on criminology, as Frances Glessner Lee did later.

They moved between Hull House and the University of Chicago and worked hard to change laws and improve the justice system. They worked in prisons and courthouses.

I got ideas for my Emily Cabot Mysteries from this book, as one woman was amazed to find when she got to do graduate work at the university that she could work with actual police officials to do the sociological studies.

These women found that when they pushed they could make an impression and actually activate some change in society. Again, I’m grateful to those women who came before me and knocked down closed doors.

By Ellen Fitzpatrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Endless Crusade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study examines the careers of the first four American women to be trained as social scientists in the research universities of late 19th-century USA. The efforts of these women to institutionalize their approach to social analysis and investigation resulted in the first graduate school of social work to be affiliated with a major research university - the University of Chicago. The book looks at the impact of late 19th-century social science on reform and finds that the research universities were important intellectual determinants of the welfare state.


You might also like...

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in homicide, criminal investigations, and the Civil Rights Movement?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about homicide, criminal investigations, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Homicide Explore 37 books about homicide
Criminal Investigations Explore 459 books about criminal investigations
The Civil Rights Movement Explore 102 books about the Civil Rights Movement