Sarah Hilary’s Fictional Heroines

Sarah Hilary’s Fictional Heroines

Susan Gray

In The Bletchley Circle, Susan Gray is a code-breaker reunited with her former comrades seven years after the end of the Second World War. All the women in this TV series are terrific, not least for the ways in which they’re trying to reinvent their lives as good wives, mothers and mistresses. Bound by the Official Secrets Act, none of them can speak of the vital work they did during the war. Susan is married to an intelligent chap who nevertheless hasn’t the foggiest that his wife is a first-class genius. He brings her the crossword puzzles from his papers to appease her cleverness, but expects her to bend her brain around nothing more exciting than shopping and the choosing of schools for their children. We all breathe a big sigh of relief when dead bodies start baffling the police, and Susan and the girls team up to outwit the killer. Girl power in the age of rationing. Glorious.

Laure Berthaud

Laure brings us bang up-to-date, as the impossibly sexy but unglamorous police captain in French TV crime drama, Spiral. As soon as I heard that the writers had taken a vow to make a show in which none of the characters was all good or all bad, I knew I was going to love Spiral. Then Laure strode onscreen, and I was hooked. She’s been described as a feminist anti-hero, but it’s her relationship with her (all male) team that brings out the best in Laure. They infuriate her, but she loves them. And we’re talking about some seriously moody men here. Luckily she has the soulful Pierre Clément to distract her (and us).

Clarice Starling

One of the best of crime fiction’s iconic heroines, Clarice is a rookie FBI agent handpicked by her phlegmatic boss to seduce secrets from the charismatic daddy of all serial killers, Dr Hannibal Lecter. Described by the oily Frederick Chilton as ‘a glorious winter sunset of a girl’, Clarice is brave and afraid in equal measure. In Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, she has an indelible empathy for the victims she’s trying to help, all young women who’ve fallen into the clutches of Buffalo Bill. In one of my favourite scenes from any contemporary crime novel, Clarice tells the macho menfolk of a small township that she will take care of the corpse of Bill’s latest victim. The scene is packed with viscera (you want to borrow the stuff they smear under their noses because you can smell everything) but what shines through is Starling’s delicacy of feeling, her complicated compassion. She remains one of my best-loved role models for a strong female lead. And she was created by a man, albeit one with extraordinary talent.

Saga Norén

Like Sherlock Holmes in leather pants and a scowl, Saga was my TV girl-crush of 2014: unapologetically brilliant at her job; at odds with the world around her; not instantly or obviously likeable but hypnotically watchable. A detective with no social skills or filter? Really? This was a question posed by a friend of mine who was a Met detective for fourteen years. Good question. I could watch Saga for hours on end (did in fact, when I was catching up with the first series of The Bridge), but I’d stop short of writing a heroine like her, fearing it would raise too many eyebrows. Marnie Rome has her share of problems, but she lacks Saga’s spectacular isolation. All the same, I like to think they’d get on like an IKEA flat-pack on fire.

Connie James

In season seven of Spooks, two amazing things happened. The first was the arrival, via the boot of a Russian car, of Lucas North. All tortured soul and tattooed skin with a smile that would thaw a Muscovite’s toes, Lucas was nearly enough on his own to make this my favourite season. But then the show served up Connie James, and the deal was sealed. Connie, the writers confessed, was named for Connie Sachs in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. Connie Sachs would have made this list if Connie James hadn’t won by a silvery whisker. Nicknamed Spy!Gran in our household, she did a mean line in twinsets and could improvise a deadly weapon from an underwired bra in the time it takes to say, ‘You’re outclassed, Miss Marple.’

Flea Marley

Flea is a police diver, and sometime-comrade to Jack Caffrey in Mo Hayder’s Walking Man series. Between recovering bloated corpses and negotiating the tortured depths of Jack’s character, Flea gets plenty of page time to demonstrate her wit and nerve. She might be small, but she’s sparky and sharp as a tack, and not much fazes her. She’s far more than a foil for our hero’s angst (such wonderful angst!), having problems of her own to negotiate, including a family tragedy that casts a long shadow. A brave woman battling demons head-on, Flea is my kind of heroine.