TV’s 10 Best Women Detectives

Chris Tilly
TV
TV

Women detectives weren’t taken particularly seriously in the early days of television. With the majority of small-screen sleuthing done by men, the women merely made coffee and offered moral support to their colleagues. But as TV has caught up with the world at large, women have slowly gone on to play a more central role in some of the greatest shows of the last few decades. One of the greatest examples of this, is of course the crime genre. With a ton of iconic detectives being played by women, here are 10 of the best.

OK, it’s really 11 thanks to the inclusion of Cagney and Lacey… or maybe 13 due to a certain dynamic animated duo that we’ve added as a bonus at the end.

‘Pepper’ Anderson — Police Woman (1974-1978)

Angie Dickinson in Police Woman.

Police Woman made history, as it was the first ongoing American drama to focus on a woman. In this case undercover police officer ‘Pepper’ Anderson. As played by Angie Dickinson, Sgt. Anderson oftentimes went undercover to solve crimes for the Criminal Conspiracy Unit of the LAPD, posing as everything from a teacher and a nurse to a prostitute and a prison inmate. The show won Dickinson a Golden Globe, while it’s thought to be responsible for a surge in women applying for police jobs in the States.

Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey — Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988)

Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless in Cagney and Lacey.

As the role of women in the home and in the workplace changed throughout the 1970s and on into the ’80s, so TV started to reflect that cultural shift. With Cagney and Lacey we see a tale of two very different detectives, Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) a single woman focussed on her career, and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daley), who was married with a kid, and struggling to balance family and work. The show revolved around them solving crimes, but also delved into their lives outside work in a way that hadn’t previously been seen onscreen. “Before Cagney and Lacey, we didn’t follow officers home to find out what they did when they took their badges off and emptied their guns” Daley recently told the Radio Times. “So the idea that these women also had lives outside of work was really interesting to play.”

Jane Marple — Miss Marple (1984-1992)

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Agatha Christie is the undisputed queen of the whodunnit, and Miss Marple is one of her most celebrated creations. An elderly spinster and amateur sleuth, she appeared in a dozen novels and many more short stories, using her intelligence and understanding of human nature to solve murders. On the big screen, the character was played by Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury (more on her in just a tick). But for our money, Joan Hickson is the most memorable of all the Marples, appearing in lavish BBC adaptations of every one of those 12 mysteries. Which is fitting, as in the 1940s, Christie saw Hickson in a stage version of Appointment with Death, and sent her a note saying “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.”

Jessica Fletcher — Murder She Wrote (1984-1996)

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher.

For 12 years, and over the course of 246 episodes, Jessica Fletcher solved crimes in her home town of Cabot Cove (where murder occurred all-too-regularly) and in locations all over the world. As played by the aforementioned Angela Lansbury, Fletcher was a successful mystery writer who moonlighted as a detective. With local law enforcement officers frequently arresting the wrong suspect, and Fletcher putting them right. Her adventures regularly attracted TV audiences of more than 30m in the States, while they landed Lansbury a record 12 Emmy nominations. None of which she won.

Jane Tennison — Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison.

Prime Suspect is quite simply one of the greatest TV shows of all-time, and much of that is down to the character Jane Tennison, a Detective Chief Inspector who has had to work twice as hard as the men around her to get to that position, and who faces institutional racism every day of her working life. The firs series focussed on that issue, while later seasons tackled racism, alcoholism, prostitution and child abuse. The drama anchored by a career-best performance from Helen Mirren. And as the actress told The Independent, the character resonated with a segment of society that had previously been ignored: “She certainly spoke to a whole generation of successful and economically powerful women. They were a market who’d been ignored. They could buy big Mercedes and expensive mortgages and pensions and were a success in the workplace, but nobody had ever shown what it had been like for them to get there. Prime Suspect showed that. Instead of being a victim, Tennison barrelled her way through — as those women did in real life — without whining or going to tribunals.”

Catherine Willows – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)

Marg Helgenberger as Catherine Willows.

America loves a police procedural, withe the likes of Law & Order, Cold Case, NCIS and Criminal Minds frequently dominating prime-time. So to represent this incredibly popular TV genre, we’re going for a brilliant detective in the most successful show of the lot; namely CSI‘s Catherine Willows. As played by Marg Helgenberger, Willows is a former stripper who works as a lab supervisor, solving crimes as part of the Las Vegas Police Department’s Crime Scene Investigation team. Combining intelligence and compassion with a no-nonsense attitude, Willows works her way up to Director of the Las Vegas Crime Lab. While the length and number of CSI seasons means we really got to know the Catherine away from the job, her complicated family life the source of much intrigue and drama.

Veronica Mars — Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars.

From grown-up detectives to a teenage sleuth… Veronica Mars was a High School student who took to crime-solving when her sheriff Dad lost his job and set up Mars Investigations. Season 1 revolved around the overarching mystery of her best friend’s murder as well as various cases of the week, and Season 2 took much the same approach, while Season 3 found Veronica solving a pair of standalone crimes at College. Played by Kristen Bell, Veronica was quick-witted and whip-smart, with her journey from popular kid to outcast sleuth as compelling as the show’s mysteries. Stephen King called it “Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe,” while the fans loved it so much that they raised more than $5m for a belated celluloid sequel to the series.

Ellie Miller — Broadchurch (2013-2017)

Olivia Colman in Broadchurch.

Olivia Colman is Britain’s greatest living actor. That’s a fact. And Colman’s performance as Ellie Miller in Broadchurch might be her finest work. Starting out the first season happy, trusting and optimistic, the investigation into the death of family friend Danny Latimer gradually breaks her. Culminating in an incredibly powerful scene where she finally confronts Danny’s killer. We meet a very different Miller in Season 2, but one who remains very good at her job. While Colman’s spiky chemistry with David Tennant — who plays Ellie’s partner Alec Hardy — makes for one of TV’s most memorable onscreen duos.

Catherine Cawood — Happy Valley (2014-present)

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.

More gritty British sleuthing, courtesy of an astonishing Sarah Lancashire performance in two hard-hitting Happy Valley seasons. Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood has had it tough. Divorced and living with her heroin-addicted sister, she’s still coming to terms with the suicide of her daughter, who killed herself after becoming pregnant by rape. When her rapist is let out of prison, Cawood makes it her mission to bring him down, no matter what the cost. Happy Valley isn’t always an easy watch, but Cawood in one of TV’s most brilliantly written and performed characters.

Jessica Jones — Jessica Jones (2015-present)

The second of the Marvel Netflix series’ to hit, Jessica Jones is also very possibly the best, thanks to the show’s complicated title character. As played by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a hard-drinking, fast-talking private eye who also possesses super-strength. Which makes her a formidable detective. The show is much darker than Marvel’s movie output, with Jessica dealing with PTSD from the mental and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of Season 1 villain Kilgrave (David Tennant). Yet in spite of the challenging subject matter, Jessica Jones is frequently hilarious, thanks to the show’s super-smart scripts, and Ritter’s marvellously deadpan delivery.

BONUS ENTRY: Velma and Daphne – Scooby-Doo (1969-present)

Daphne and Velma.

In spite of the fact that they’ve been doing detective work for nearly 50 years, Velma Dinkley and Daphne Blake look surprisingly sprightly. Together with their friends Fred and Shaggy — and Great Dane Scoody-Doo — they cruise around in the Mystery Machine solving hundreds of crimes. Most of them seem supernatural in nature, but these atrocities are actually usually carried out by embittered old men, who would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. Brainbox Velma and Danger-Prone Daphne even appeared on the silver screen, with Linda Cardellini and Sarah Michelle Gellar playing the dynamic duo in a pair of successful films.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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