From murder victims and comical characters, to killers and sleuths, mothers have left their mark on detective fiction and this post takes a brief look at some of them. I thought such a topic would be apt given that it is Mother’s Day today in the UK.
Beware Christie Spoilers Ahead
When one tackles any such post it is a given that one starts with Agatha Christie, who helpfully provides a whole host of roles for mothers in her stories. Frequently she reveals that young or old mothers are far from the angelic creatures we suppose them to be. How likely are we to suspect the young mother with a child as being part of espionage plot? In Christie’s books we should. Equally Christie also shows how motherhood generates a load more reasons to bump someone off, from Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to The Hollow (1946). Even the prevention or termination of motherhood leads to poignant and deadly crimes in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) and By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968). Christie is not the only writer of course to put mothers in such criminal roles with examples also cropping up in the devastating The Pursued (2011) by C. S. Forester and Dorothy L. Sayers Gaudy Night (1935). I’m not sure how close vintage crime writers got to containing a Medea like mother in their stories, but I think Christie’s Nemesis (1971) perhaps gets close to it, as does Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn (1958) and if my memory serves me correctly Evelyn Berckman’s The Blind Villain (1956), skirts around the theme as well. Interestingly June Wright is recorded as having said how good writing murder mysteries is as a way of avoiding infanticide!
In terms of popular murder victim types, stepmothers do seem to take on the role a lot in crime fiction. The wicked stepmother of Cinderella has certainly found a home in murder mysteries, though perhaps not the one she was hoping for. One of the meanest examples and, dare I say it, the meanest example of a mother/stepmother in the Christie canon is Mrs Boynton, who is poisoned in Appointment with Death (1938). However, I can imagine some readers nudging me to remind me of Rachel Argyle in Ordeal by Innocence (1958), an adoptive mother, who has a devastating effect on the children she takes in. I think what makes her less of an evil/malign figure is that the problems she creates, come from a series of good intentions and a dysfunctional desire to help. Whilst, Mrs Boynton on the other hand, actually enjoys hurting those closest to her, revelling in exerting her power and control over them. There are no good motivations there. Sometimes though things are not so black and white and one of the strengths of Berckman’s The Beckoning Dream (1956), is how the initially wicked mother in law ultimately becomes a victim.
Moving away from death, one thing I have noticed in Christie’s work, as no doubt scores of other readers have, is the tendency for mothers and their children to lack understanding of one another, either from one of the parties or both. Now this can occur quite comically such as in ‘The Oracle at Delphi,’ a Parker Pyne short story, in which a son is oblivious to the fact his mother has chosen a holiday which he will like and not her:
‘This morning Willard had started early to see some Byzantine mosaics. Mrs Peters, feeling instinctively that Byzantine mosaics would leave her cold (in the literal as well as the spiritual sense), excused herself.
“I understand Mother… You want to be alone just to sit in the theatre or up in the stadium and look down over it and let it sink in.”
“That’s right, pet.”’
Another example can arguably also be found in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), between Mrs Willett and her daughter Violet, a relationship which is usually played for laughs in adaptations. Yet this trope can also be conveyed in a more poignant manner such as in The Moving Finger (1943) and in Death on the Nile (1937).
However, to brighten the mood a little, mothers can also be used in a more positive way for comedy purposes. Comic writing duo Constance and Gwenyth Little were keen proponents of this trope, with some good examples to be found in The Black Gloves (1939), The Black Stocking (1947) and The Black Iris (1953). Furthermore, one of my favourite fictional comedy mums, has to be Lord Peter Wimsey’s, the dowager, who you can always rely on for some chuckle-inducing dialogue. Though, Marian Carstairs of Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide (1944) runs a close second. It is not through what she does as such, as she is invariably working on her next novel, oblivious to all else, but through the actions others, namely her children, take on her behalf. Even better there is also a passage in which we hear of her precocious children’s choice of Mother’s Day present. They buy their mother a book entitled How To Cope With A Growing Child. Marian inquires whether this is ‘a delicately implied criticism of the way’ she is caring for them, but her children respond with, ‘We’re more than satisfied… we like the way you bring us up. But we thought, just to be on the safe side…’
Finally, I felt a separate category was justified for young mothers. There is an albeit small body of titles which have such figures as sleuths and two I can strongly recommend are Skeleton Key (1943) by Lenore Glen Offord and So Bad a Death (1949) by June Wright, which aside from containing a good mystery, has a lot to say about mothering practices of time. I must also mention Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn (1958) again, as this is another one I’d recommend, in which a sleep deprived mother is becoming increasingly suspicious of her female lodger, who she begins to suspect is trying to take her husband and children away from her – or is it just her incoherent tired mind playing tricks? A bit like Wright’s novels, this is a story which considers contemporary expectations of mothers.
It goes without saying that I will have left dozens of fine criminal maternal examples from my post, so share your own favourites below.