You can’t spell Ladies without dies.
For five years, we’ve been ranking the genre’s top ten alpha males every December. Now, we’re introducing a new yearly list . . . built entirely around female characters.
By far, this list is the most requested article we’ve received from readers over the years, and we’re excited to finally unveil our first ever Top 15 list of the most lethal ladies in the thriller genre, featuring some of the very best characters currently in print today.
Compiling these 15 names wasn’t easy. For help, we reached out to a number of readers (most of them women) and several other critics, along with two female thriller authors who didn’t have new books out in 2018. Like our other list, this one is designed to only rank characters according to what they did in their latest book–and to qualify, they had to appear in a 2018 title. While that did eliminate a number of really great characters who weren’t featured in ’18, it also opens the door for us to revamp the list each January according to what went down the previous year in the publishing world.
So, what makes a character lethal? Well, I put that exact question to our voters (along with a list of names), asking them to account for physical skill sets, as well as intellect and experience. Bottom line, I summed the question up like this: “Who would you most be afraid to cross?”
See the results below.
15.) Candy McClure
2018 Book: Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
Having grown up as part of a government program designed to raise children to be assassins, Candy was one of the very best “Orphans” the program ever produced. Except, she’s no good guy, at least not like Evan Smoak–who broke from the program to do his own thing. While Smoak is the main character, Candy serves as a worthy adversary in multiple books. Smokin’ hot from the front, Candy is described as looking like “Freddy Krueger” from the back, thanks to Evan and a whole bunch of acid that left her scarred and in a state of constant pain. Still, she uses her model-like good looks to get close to her targets, then dispatches them without a moment of hesitation, usually in pretty creative ways.
Of all the characters on this list, Candy is the only one who plays the role of a villain, and she’s easily the coldest killer of ’em all.
14.) Eve Dallas
2018 Books: Dark in Death and Leverage in Death by J.D. Robb
Since 1995, Nora Roberts, writing under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, has been treating readers to two In Death books per year, bringing the series total to 58 books and counting at the end of 2018. (Titles 59 and 60 are set for publication in 2019).
Eve Dallas, the star of Robb’s long-running franchise set in the mid-21st-century, is a lieutenant with the New York City Police and Security Department (NYPSD). In 2018, Eve took on a gruesome murder case involving an icepick that mirrored a scene from a popular novel, and an odd suicide bombing on Wall Street. Savy and whip-smart, Eve always seems to stay one step ahead of the criminals, and Nora Roberts has developed her fabulously over the course of her almost sixty cases.
13.) Renee Ballard
2018 Book: Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
2017 was a two-book year for #1 New York Times bestselling author Michael Connelly. First-up was newcomer Renee Ballard, a young LAPD detective stuck working the night shift, who appeared as the star protagionist in The Late Show. Bosch had a solo book later that year, but what fans really wanted was to see was the two detectives team up, which is just what Connelly did with his 2018 book, Dark Sacred Night.
There’s a ton of great qualities to Ballard–she works tirelessly seeking justice for those who need it most, she’s smart, strong, unafraid to make waves when necessary, etc. — but the fact that she can hold her own with Bosch after just one solo book kind of tells you all you need to know about her. Harry Bosch is an iconic character, made even more popular because of the Amazon-produced TV show Bosch, starring Titus Welliver (who is simply brilliant as Harry, by the way). And yet it’s Ballard who steals scene after scene, connecting the dots and working overtime to track a killer who murdered a fifteen-year-old girl more than a decade prior.
It’s unclear if Ballard will become a staple in the Bosch series, receive her own spinoff franchise, or just re-occur from time to time moving forward, but there’s no question that she’s one of the best characters the genre currently has to offer.
12.) Livia Lone
2018 Book: The Night Trade by Barry Eisler
In Eilser’s last book, sex-crimes detective Livia Lone finds herself working with a government anti-trafficking task force that, ultimately, leads to her going back to Thailand and taking on a personal case that causes her to revisit her past. Eisler, who also pens the John Rain series, knows how to deliver nonstop action, but he’s also skilled at developing characters, making them both larger-than-life and relatable at the same time. It’s a fascinating line he’s able to toe and, as good as Rain is, Livia Lone, for my money, is the strongest character in his arsenal right now. She’s cunning, intelligent, and absolutely fearless. If you’re not already reading this series, change that today.
11.) Bianca St. Ives
2018 Book: The Moscow Deception by Karen Robards
Similar to how Dexter was a serial killer helping to track down serial killers, Biana St. Ives is a master thief who also happens to be one of the foremost authorities on anti-theft technologies. While she’s been called a “modern-day Robin Hood,” there’s another side to her too. Raised by her father, Bianca was closer with her dad but never knew that he was secretly an assassin working with CIA. On top of that, he was part of a top-secret program designed to indoctrinate young children and raise them to be killers for the government. The program never took off, though, and Bianca is the only remaining offspring still alive–making her the only person with any connection to the controversial failed experiment. That leads to a million-dollar bounty being placed on her head and Bianca’s life being turned upside down after she’s forced to go on the run.
Running, though, isn’t her style, and eventually, she fights back. Hard.
Robards has done a fantastic job bringing her new star character along. Through two action-packed books, Bianca is shown to be tough, cool under pressure, and savvy enough to evade those looking for her while still pulling high-profile heists. She’s a great new character, and the sky is the limit for this franchise.
10.) Irene Kennedy
2018 Book: Red War by Kyle Mills
Irene Kennedy almost never has to get her hands dirty. That’s what Mitch Rapp, the American assassin is for. But Kennedy, the longtime CIA director and one of the most important characters in Vince Flynn’s #1 bestselling series, has proven in the past that when the situation calls for it, she’s not afraid to get down into the mud and take matters into her own hands (even if it means executing someone in the Oval Office). That said, Irene’s strength lies in her being the smartest person in any given room and always remaining one step ahead of America’s many enemies.
Known for her rock-solid poker face and nerves of steel, Kennedy’s ability to serve the geopolitical landscape and pick out potential threats has saved millions of lives. So has her willingness to send Mitch Rapp out into the field, where he’s killed countless bad guys at her direction. So while Rapp might be America’s greatest weapon against the war on terror, Kennedy is the one deploying him and calling out the targets, making her just as important, if not more so.
The only character on this list who doesn’t regularly find herself running and gunning, Irene Kennedy did pull off an impressive secret meeting in Red War where she makes a cunning political power play, strong-arming a high-ranking member of a foreign government into doing exactly what she wants.
9.) Caitlin Hendrix
2018 Book: Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner
First introduced in UNSUB (2017), Hendrix grew up the daughter of a detective who was in charge of capturing the Prophet, a serial killer terrorizing the Bay Area. Ultimately, her father never caught the killer, who eventually vanished. Years later, now a narcotics cop, Caitlin gets the chance to finish what her dad started when the Prophet reemerges to continue his murderous ways. In book two, Hendrix is now an FBI profiler working with an elite Behavioral Analysis Unit. Her job is literally to track down serial killers. When everyone is locking their doors and keeping the lights on all night, Caitlin thrives in the darkness, putting fear into those preying on innocent people.
Gardiner has done a great job bringing Hendrix along over the course of two books, turning her series into one of the very best the thriller genre has to offer.
2018 Book: *The Demon Crown by James Rollins
Here’s the thing, James Rollins didn’t technically release a new book in 2018. The Demon Crown actually came out at the end of 2017, and Rollins just published the next Sigma thriller, Crucible, a couple of weeks ago. However, we found a loophole just to ensure that Seichan made this list because, come on, everyone knows she belongs here. Turns out, The Demon Crown did come out in mass paperback on June 19, 2018, and while that isn’t a “new” release, we’re counting it anyway because no matter how you slice it, you just can’t have a Top 15 most lethal ladies list without Seichan’s name on it.
Raised on the streets before she was recruited by the Guild (a dangerous shadow organization who serves as the primary antagonist in multiple books) and trained as an assassin, Seichan eventually flips sides and begins partnering with the Guild’s most notable rival, Sigma Force. Now working with the good guys, Seichan is still a force to be reckoned with, and not the type of person you want to cross . . . which many bad guys have found out the hard way.
7.) Jessica Reel
2018 Book: *End Game by David Baldacci
One of the most lethal assassins in the world, Jessica Reel starred alongside Will Robie in Baldacci’s End Game. While it wasn’t the best book in the series–the plot fell a tad flat and the pacing wasn’t what fans are used to–readers got to see plenty of action, and Reel was right in the middle of it all. Whether she’s using weapons or her bare fists, Jessica is as lethal as they come. It’s actually a bummer that Robie is the main character in this series, as Reel is the more compelling character for a number of reasons. Of course, to squeeze her in here we had to apply the same rule mentioned above for James Rollins’ Seichan, as End Game actually came out in 2017 before being released in mass market paperback last March.
Baldacci narrowly missed having two characters on this list, with Atlee Pine (Long Road to Mercy), his latest series protagionist, scoring enough votes to place one spot outside the top fifteen.
6.) Nola Brown
2018 Book: The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer
Brad Meltzer is one of the premier thriller authors on the planet, and while he’s best known in the book world (he also hosted two popular television shows on the History Channel) for his Beecher White series, that could soon change. She’s only appeared in one book so far, but Nola Brown sure looks to be Meltzer’s best character to date. In fact, there hasn’t been a character this mysterious and badass since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out back in 2005.
While much of Meltzer’s The Escape Artist focuses on another character trying to figure out who, exactly, Nola Brown is, readers learn plenty by the book’s end. Not only does she have a lethal set of skills, but Nola has a really raw presence on the page that’ll keep readers on edge from beginning to end.
5.) Jennifer Cahill
2018 Book: Operator Down by Brad Taylor
Jennifer Cahill, known also known by her callsign “Koko,” first appeared in Taylor’s debut thriller, One Rough Man, where she proved to be the perfect companion to the series protagonist, Pike Logan. A fan favorite from the get-go, Jennifer has hung around ever since, playing a prominent supporting role over the course of the series. While that in and of itself isn’t uncommon, many thriller writers introduced love interests or female characters opposite their main hero, Taylor deserves a lot of credit for the way he first portrayed Cahill and how he’s developed her over the years.
Nowadays, there has been a major infusion of female characters capable of holding their own with male counterparts from just about every well-known writer on the planet. But Taylor was doing it first, back when he wrote Jennifer as a strong, independent character who can handle herself and isn’t afraid to mix it up. She’s tough, yet beautiful. She’s funny, yet has a fiery intensity when the situation calls for it. Basically, she’s a knockout who can actually knock you out, and while she’s not as hot-headed as Taylor’s other popular female character Shoshana, Jennifer did kick a dude off some scaffolding one time out of revenge . . . so, there’s that.
Most authors are scrambling to do what Taylor has done for years, while he’s taken things to another level. Pike Logan might be the star, but Jennifer is just as important to this franchise as he is.
4.) Jane Hawke
2018 Book: The Crooked Staircase and The Forbidden Door by Dean Koontz
Though she’s still a relatively new character, Jane Hawke is one of the best heroines in print right now. Picture Angelina Jolie’s character in SALT meets MARVEL’s Black Widow. Jane was once a top FBI agent. Now, she’s one of the most wanted fugitives in the world, on the run from the very people she’s trying to expose as being behind a major conspiracy that claimed the life of her husband and countless others. She’s both highly trained and highly resourceful, which, when combined with the fact that she’s also properly motived, makes her one of the most dangerous characters in the game today.
Koontz is a fabulous writer who knows how to dial up the suspense, and Jane is the kind of character who allows him to try just about anything.
3.) Thea Paris
2018 Book: Skyjack by K.J. Howe
Howe only introduced Thea Paris in 2017’s The Freedom Broker, but she’s already a major powerhouse and fan-favorite character. The new darling of the thriller genre, Thea runs with a group of kidnap and ransom specialists. In fact, she’s one of only a few elite K&R operatives in the world. When someone’s taken and going through the proper law enforcement channels to get them back doesn’t work or isn’t an option, Thea and her squad get the call–and she’s lights-out every time.
One of the things that makes Thea special is that she’s not Superwoman. Yeah, she’s tough and fierce when she needs to be, but she also has weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For example, she has diabetes, which she keeps secret from just about everyone for obvious reasons. Don’t let her medical condition fool you though, Thea Paris can throw down with the best of them, and Howe knows her way around an action scene. Together, they’re an unstoppable force with major star power. . . this series is not to be missed.
2.) Dominika Egorova
2018 Book: The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews
Moviegoers may have just met Dominika in the 2018 movie Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers, The Hunger Games), but readers have been following “Diva” around since Jason Matthews first introduced her in 2013. Aside from having one of the best callsigns in print, Diva is definitely one of the most lethal characters around, regardless of sex. Speaking of sex, that’s Dominika’s specialty. Trained in the art of seduction, Dominika, who was a dancer before an injury altered her career trajectory and landed her in Russia’s sparrow school, uses her good looks and toned body to lure targets into bed, causing them to lower their guard and making it easier for her to kill them.
While her methods are highly effective, Dominika eventually begins working as a mole for the CIA, and in Matthews’ final book in the trilogy, she races to prevent her identity from becoming exposed when the Kremlin flips a high-ranking American intelligence officer . . . a woman who, years prior, was blackmailed by the Russians after a sexual encounter with Dominika. The irony of the situation aside, Matthews’ nail-biting game of cat and mouse closes with a shock ending that left more than a few fans gasping for air.
Diva nearly took the top spot on this list, and you could make the case she belongs there. That said, as lethal as she is, there’s one character a tad more dangerous than her . . .
2018 Book: Operator Down by Brad Taylor
Shoshana is the greatest killing machine the Mossad has ever produced and one of Brad Taylor’s greatest creations so far. In Operator Down, after her lover, Aaron, is captured, Shoshana opens a serious can of whoop-ass on the bad guys, proving once again that when it comes to the ladies in the thriller genre, she’s the most lethal of ’em all.
While Taylor’s series is built around Pike Logan, he’s always put strong, hard-hitting ladies around Pike to lend a hand, even allowing them to at times outshine his star protagonist. That’s one of the things that sets Taylor apart, along with the undeniable fact that in a genre where everyone is rushing to introduce ass-kicking females, he helped blaze the trail and made incorporating strong women into his stories a priority from the beginning. The fact that a secondary character ranks #1 on this list might be surprising, but Taylor’s actually the only author listed here with two characters present . . . and they’re both in the top five.
Shoshana is a little crazy sometimes, but she has a good heart and powerful backstory . . . she’s also totally fearless and capable of stunning, breathtaking violence. Bottom line: You don’t ever, ever want to lock horns with her, and we can only hope Taylor will continue to showcase her unique skills in future books.
(Note: In Daughter of War, his latest novel which came out in early January, Taylor introduces another great female character. If you still haven’t gotten around to reading that one, you should definitely pick it up sooner rather than later.)
Honorable mentions: Atlee Pine (Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci), Michaela Caine (The Sixth Day by Coulter and Elison), Amira Cerone (Field of Valor by Matthew Betley), Flora Dane and D.D. Warren (Look for Me by Lisa Gardner), Lacy Sherlock (Paradox by Catherine Coulter), Eve Duncan (Shattered by Iris Johansen), Joanna Brady (Field of Bones by J.A. Jance), Cassie Bagwell (Dark Winter by Anthony J. Tata), Stephanie Plum (Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich) V. I. Warshawski (Shell Game by Sara Paretsky), Penny Kessler (Liar’s Candle by August Thomas), Elizabeth Grimes (American Operator by Andrews & Wilson), and Saga Baure (The Sandman by Lars Kepler).
Interestingly enough, even though I provided a list of character names under consideration to the voters we reached out to, several of them sent back a couple of characters from Brad Thor‘s The Athena Project. Thor, one of my all-time favorite authors, has always made it a point to involve kickass women into his books (including The Athena Project, a standalone novel set in the same universe as his Scot Harvath franchise) but while some of the Athena operators do appear in other books, none qualified for this list due to our 2018 rule of only using characters who appeared last year. That said, Thor has two other great female characters in Sloan Ashby and Lydia Ryan.
Sloan rolls with Harvath in Spymaster, providing backup and playing a key role along the way. Likewise, a major plot thread follows Ryan, who now heads up The Carlton Group, effectively making her Scot’s boss. While they both have different strengths, both are fearless and are equally important to Thor’s series. They each just missed the cut here, according to voters.
Another very popular name was Vanessa Munroe, the star of Taylor Stevens’ popular series. Frankly, Munroe could have been #1 on this list, but she hasn’t appeared in a book since 2015’s The Mask. That said, she’s a great character, so if you’re looking for a lethal lady to follow around, check her out.
Another name that was listed but didn’t make the cut was Zoya Zakharvoa from Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series. However, while Zoya plays a major role in Greaney’s latest, Mission Critical, she didn’t in last year’s Agent in Place. She did, however, make her presence felt in Gunmetal Gray, and she’s a solid choice to crack the top ten next year.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.