Here in the U.S., it’s Mother’s Day (or very nearly so, depending on when you read this). What’s really interesting about it isn’t that there’s a holiday devoted to mothering (although, speaking as a mother, I don’t have a problem with that ; ) ). What’s fascinating is the really very powerful role that mothers play, both in real life and in fiction. There really isn’t anything quite like it. There are plenty of examples of mothers and motherly characters in crime fiction, and today seems like the right day to salute them.
Mothers feature in several Agatha Christie novels. For example, in Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgware Dies), we meet the Dowager Duchess of Merton. She’s terribly upset because her son, the Duke of Merton, has fallen in love with Jane Wilkinson, an American actress who’s currently married to the 4th Baron Edgware. When Lord Edgware is murdered, the Duchess is especially worried because now, her son is free to marry Jane Wilkinson, which is the last thing she wants. Her only hope is that Jane will be charged with the murder. When Jane is able to show that she was at a dinner several miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder, the Duchess is frantic with worry and goes to see Poirot to ask him to help her. Poirot has every sympathy for her, despite her autocratic ways, but he can’t help her. After all, as Poirot puts it, the Duke is free to choose for himself. In the scene between them, we may think the Duchess is being overprotective of her grown son, but we can really see the bond she feels with her son.
In Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), Lynn Marchmont comes home to her village of Warmsley Vale after service in World War II. Her mother, Adela, is delighted to have her daughter back, and Lynn, too, is glad to be back. She can’t help but notice, though, that her mother is really struggling financially. That’s chiefly because Adela’s brother, wealthy Gordon Cloade, has unexpectedly married, and then suddenly, tragically, been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade had always led his brothers and sister to believe that he would see to their financial future, but his sudden death has meant that his widow, Rosaleen Cloade, has inherited everything instead. As much for her mother’s sake as for any other reason, Lynn is resentful at the situation. Then one day, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to Warmsley Vale. He claims that he has information that Rosaleen Cloade was already married at the time she married Gordon Cloade. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit her husband’s money. When the stranger is later killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation, as well as in the search for answers about Rosaleen Cloade’s past. Throughout this novel, the relationship between Lynn and Adela Marchmont is a very interesting sub-plot. One can see the affection between them, and the respect that Lynn learns to have for the sacrifices her mother has made.
We meet another devoted mother in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. In that novel, twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls is a young New Jersey pre-teen who doesn’t fit in well socially. He’s highly intelligent, even brilliant, but he has anger issues and always seems to get in trouble. He also dreams of being a detective, and is a devoted fan of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and other famous fictional sleuths. Huge gets his first assignment as a private investigator when his grandmother offers him ten dollars to find out who defaced the sign at the local home for the aged, where she lives. As he goes through the process of finding out how and by whom the sign was marred, “Huge” also goes through an important process of self-discovery and growing up. He has several adventures, including sneaking out late at night and ending up getting into a fight at a party when he’s supposed to be at home. One of the strong characters in this novel is Huge’s mother. She’s had to raise her two children alone since their father left the family; to do that, she waits tables during the day and tends bar at night, so she’s not at home as much as she would like to be. Still, she loves her children and spends as much time with them as she can. Despite Huge’s problems in school, she supports her son and tries to help him as much as she can. In turn, Huge (from whose viewpoint the story is told) loves his mother and enjoys watching TV and playing Scrabble with her. He hates disappointing her, and you can see real affection between them integrated throughout the novel.
The strength and power of motherhood is really apparent in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, haven’t been able to have children, and Deborah’s despondent over it. One day, she’s in a museum and happens to meet Robin Sage, the vicar of Wimslough. Deborah gets a real sense of peace from their conversation, and wants to meet the vicar again. So she convinces Simon to take a holiday in Wimslough, so she can spend some time in the vicar’s congregation. By the time they arrive, though, Sage has died from of water hemlock poisoning in what seems to be a tragic accident. Simon St. James isn’t convinced that the vicar’s death was accidental, though, so he asks his friend, Inspector Lynley, to look into the matter. Lynley agrees and begins to investigate. He finds out that several people in the village of Wimslough are hiding troubled pasts, including the vicar himself. In the end, we see how powerful a force the maternal instinct can be; one could even argue that it sets in motion a great deal of the action in the story.
One of the sub-plots in Missing Joesph is the relationship between Sergeant Barbara Havers and her mother. In this particular novel, Havers has to cope with the changes she has to make now that her mother’s in a nursing home. Havers’ relationship with her other is an example of bond that crime fiction often shows us between sleuths and their mothers.
Another example of this is the bond between Dorothy Sayers’ Honoria Lucasta Delagardie, the Dowager Duchess of Denver and her son, Lord Peter Wimsey. She’s a loving mother who considers Wimsey,
“…the dearest of all my children, only it doesn’t do for parents to say so…”
In Clouds of Witness, we learn that Wimsey is more like his mother than he is like his father or brothers, so perhaps that makes sense. The Duchess of Denver appears in several of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and is a strong support for her son. In fact, she worries openly for his well-being. Harriet Vane knows how close Wimsey and his mother are, so when she and Wimsey fall in love and marry, she’s worried that her mother-in-law won’t accept her. As we find out in Busman’s Honeymoon, though, she need have no fears. Wimsey’s mother makes it clear to Harriet Vane that she’s glad that Wimsey has found someone to make him happy.
Less refined but just as devoted is Ellen Plum, the mother of Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s sleuth. Ellen wants nothing more for her daughter than that she find a good husband and perhaps, a “safe” job, settle down and have a good life. Instead, Stephanie is a bounty hunter who works for her cousin’s bail bond agency. Ellen worries constantly for her daughter, and does her best to see that Stephanie has at least some good meals. She’s eager for her daughter to find the right man, and isn’t above reminding Stephanie that “they’re always hiring at the button factory.” Sometimes, Stephanie gets exasperated by her mother, but she also has real affection for her.
And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Red Clover. He’s the police chief for the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. He’s a devoted son to his mother, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover. He does her “heavy” chores, sees that she has everything she needs, and tries to be respectful of her. He also worries quite a bit about her, because Myrtle Clover is in her eighties, a time in life when Red thinks people should slow down. He’d rather see his “Mama” getting involved in church work, reading, or watching her favorite soap opera, Tomorrow’s Promise. Myrtle, though, is not at all happy about feeling useless and “put out to pasture.” So, much as she loves her son (and she does), she sometimes gets angry at his attempts to take away her independence. That’s what we see in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, when, despite Red’s best efforts, Myrtle sets out to solve the murder of Parke Stockard. The relationship between them as she solves that case is a funny and positive sub-plot in that novel.
Finally, I’d like to mention one of my personal favorite sleuth/mother relationships. That’s the relationship between James Yaffe’s sleuth, former Bronx police officer Dave and his mother. Dave is saddened by the loss of his wife, Shirley, and everything in New York reminds him of her. So he takes a job as an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office in Mesa Grande, Colorado. The one thing he misses is the Friday night Sabbath dinners he used to have with his mother, when they used to discuss his cases. So when “Mom” moves to Mesa Grande, Dave can’t help but be glad, even though his mother delights in re-arranging his cupboards, filling his refrigerator and otherwise trying to run his life. And as it turns out, Mom's quite good at giving Dave practical input and advice that helps him solve crimes.
If you’re a mother, even if you celebrate Mother’s Day at another time, I hope you take some pride in what you’ve accomplished! Who are your favorite crime-fictional mothers?
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Loves Me Like a Rock.
On Another Note…..
There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Not only is it Mother’s Day here in the U.S., but it’s also Billy Joel’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Billy Joel!!