I'm the kind of reader who doesn't like to waste time with fluffy books. I like books that teach me something -- preferably something useful and unexpected. For instance, I like to find out how to bypass electronic hotel-security systems, make a bomb out of common kitchen supplies or create a new identity complete with credit history. If this kind of lesson comes sandwiched in between scenes of cruelty, sex and secret-agent-style international high jinks, all the better. And I learn best from women. Following are five of my favorite novels about kick-ass, super-competent, coolheaded, hotblooded, semilegal girls.
Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell
I collect Modesty. She is the queen of kick-ass girls, born in a comic strip and finally killed last year after appearing in three decades' worth of stories. The Blaise series is one of the most reliably predictable suspense series I've ever found: the same harrowing biography of a nomadic orphan of uncertain heritage who becomes a teenage crime-syndicate leader, the same inevitable plunge into danger with her best friend Willie Garvin, the same fight against terrible odds to rid the world of a nasty person -- invariably a psychotic genius planning a terrible crime against innocents. She kills more, fights more, survives more and has sex more often than James Bond. Dig her.
Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry
Jane Whitefield is a specialist in disappearances. She is lovely, smart and mysterious, part Seneca Indian, a loner of preternatural calm during danger and with a deep bag of tricks. Jane doesn't have an office. Friends refer friends; through the grapevine come endangered children, battered women, criminals who've changed their minds. They come to Jane and she disappears them -- new name, papers, habits, home. Since her clients get to her doorstep about 10 minutes ahead of the bad guys, this all happens on the run. In this first of a series, Jane has a satisfyingly difficult time working out the kinks with a client who seems to need her in more ways than one and turns out to be both less and more than she thought.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The first and by far the best of a series of Holmesian pastiches. Mary Russell is an orphaned, acerbic, teenage girl genius who literally runs into the retired Sherlock Holmes and neatly inserts herself into his careful and lonesome world. Lots of bombs, disguises, safe rooms, chemistry, spying and lock picking and the usual cast of suspects.
The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith
Like their male counterparts, the best female secret-agent types have dark corners in their lonely psyches. Griffith, who also writes excellent science fiction, here creates Aud Torvingen, an affluent, violent, Norwegian ex-cop, cold and hot all over. She knows how to fight, kill, survive and think but learns how to love only when she meets Julia on the trail of an art thief and murderer. Wheels within wheels, great sex, tragedy and even a little woodworking.
Void Moon by Michael Connelly
Cassie Black is a reformed casino cat burglar, just out of prison and trying to go straight while she mourns her dead lover and crime partner and hides a terrible secret. Of course, she is forced back into crime for the most selfless of reasons, and the reader learns why you're never safe in hotel rooms, you should never waste money at casino tables, how to use night-vision goggles and why criminals should never trust cellphones. Scary and fun.