One of the important and far-reaching social changes of the last fifty years has been in our views of single parenthood. Today millions of people raise children without a spouse or partner and not because they were widowed. Single parenthood has become an everyday fact of life in many countries and it’s interesting to look back and see how our views of it have evolved. Just a quick glance at a few crime fiction novels shows how society’s attitudes have developed over the decades.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, we meet Elise Grandier. She is maid to Marie Morisot, who does business as a moneylender under the name of Madame Giselle. One afternoon, Madame Giselle is en route from her home in Paris to London when she suddenly dies. It’s not long before it’s established that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp and French authorities to find out who the murderer is. At one point, Poirot interviews Elise to see if she can shed any light on her mistress’ murder. Since she was not on the plane, she isn’t a suspect, but Poirot thinks she may be helpful. As they talk, he discovers the reason for her fierce loyalty to Madame Giselle. Years earlier, Elise had a child out of wedlock. At that time, the only real choice she had was to go away, have the child and return after the child had been given up for adoption. Madame Giselle took her in and was good to her and Elise has never forgotten that. While that small story thread is not the motive for the murder, it does give us a glimpse of the attitudes of the day towards unwed parenthood.
Rex Stout’s Champagne For One was written approximately twenty-five years after Death in the Clouds, and in it we see some differences in the way single parenthood is portrayed. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner party at the home of wealthy and influential Louise Robilotti. Among other charities she supports is Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. The goal of this institution is to give these young women a place to live until they have their babies and then support them until they find husbands or jobs. Mrs. Robilotti takes a special interest in Grantham House and every year, she invites a select few of its residents to her dinner party. This year, one of the Grantham House invitees is Faith Usher. During the dinner, one of the other residents Rose Tuttle tells Goodwin that Faith has brought cyanide with her and intends to commit suicide. At first Goodwin doesn’t believe her, but not long afterwards, Faith actually does die of what turns out to be cyanide poisoning. Everyone is convinced that she made good on her threat and committed suicide. But Goodwin isn’t convinced. So, despite a great deal of pressure from the Robilotti family and the police, he starts to investigate. And in the end, he discovers who really killed Faith Usher and why. This novel doesn’t exactly portray these unwed mothers in the most positive of lights. They are still represented as needing to be redeemed if that’s the word. But it is interesting to see how by the late 1950’s, there was at least more acceptance that sometimes young women become pregnant even if they are not married.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s even being spoken of as the city’s next mayor. She’s got two healthy children and by all accounts, a good life. Then through sheer accident, her daughter Hannah is taken to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie herself gave birth to another child in 1986. A nurse who was there at the time remembers Jodie and her baby Elsa Mary and starts to ask questions about what happened to the child. Her questions have devastating consequences for the Garrow family when an investigation is opened. Everyone wants to know what happened to the baby. Jodie claims she gave the child up for adoption, but no adoption records have been found. As the story gets more and more attention, Jodie becomes a pariah to most people, who begin to suspect that she might have been responsible for the baby’s disappearance. As the details of what really happened in 1986 unfold we get a sense of what life was like at that time for unwed parents. At the time Elsa Mary was born, Jodie got a lot of sympathy – more than she would have a few decades earlier. She got support and there was an expectation that she would tell her parents and the baby’s father and all would be well. Jodie is not from an upper-class family, and what’s interesting is that that is more of a ‘black mark’ against her than is the fact that she got pregnant without being married.
Today it’s not at all uncommon for parents to be single. In both real life and crime fiction it’s taken in a very matter-of-fact way. For instance, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase features Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian single mother of three-year-old Mikas. Her life is by no means luxurious, but all is well enough until the terrible day when Mikas is abducted. When it’s clear that he’s not with his father, Sigita is terrified that something awful has happened to him and she goes on a frantic search for him. That’s how her path crosses the path of Nina Borg, a Copenhagen volunteer who’s made a frightening discovery: a little boy, drugged and dazed but alive, locked in a suitcase. It’s soon clear that the child Nina found is Sigita’s son Mikas, and each in a different way, the two women try to find out who abducted Mikas and why. Throughout this novel, the fact that Sigita is a single mother is not a major issue. She’s not regarded as ‘not quite good enough’ because she isn’t married and her character is painted quite sympathetically.
The same might be said of Anthony Bidulka’s Ethan Ash, who runs Ash House, a Saskatoon ‘frat house for the senior set.’ Ethan is the single father of Simonette, who goes by the name of Simon. When Bidulka’s sleuth PI Russell Quant meets Ash, he’s attracted and in Aloha Candy Hearts he and Ash begin a relationship. Ash’s devotion to Simon is real and he is portrayed believably and sympathetically. In the novels in which he features, his status as a single father is dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way. Certainly it doesn’t detract from the way others see him, especially Quant.
There are several sleuths, too, who are single parents. For instance Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is the single mother of Kate. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the single father of Maddie, and was the child of a single mother. There are a lot of other examples too of single parents in crime fiction that space doesn’t allow me to mention. I’m sure I’ve not mentioned the ones you like best. So help me out and fill in the gaps I’ve left.
It’s never been easy to be a single parent. It still isn’t. But it is heartening (at least to me) to see that today’s attitudes about single parenting have evolved by and large from punitive to supportive.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams’ You and Me Against the World, made popular by Helen Reddy. Factoid you probably aren’t interested in but I’ll tell you anyway: Reddy’s daughter Traci has a spoken part in that recording of the song.