Mother’s Gonna Keep You Right Here Under Her Wing*

MotheringSpeaking as a mother, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You may already know this, but mothers spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves. Trust me. Most mothers (fathers, too!) love their children very much and want to do a good job of raising them. The trouble is that children don’t come with user’s manuals (wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did?). So there are plenty of times when it’s easy to wonder if you’ve done the right thing (e.g. Was I too harsh? Did I just get manipulated into saying ‘yes’ when I shouldn’t have? Should I give advice?).

Ever interested in providing public service, I’m here to dispel any doubts you may have about your parenting skills. As crime fiction shows us, there are plenty of mums out there whose bad parenting and dysfunction are guaranteed to make you feel much better about yourself as a mother.

Take Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Boynton, for example. When we meet Mrs. Boynton and her family in Appointment With Death, they are touring the Middle East and planning a trip to Petra. Mrs. Boynton is a tyrant and a mental sadist who has all of the members of her family thoroughly cowed. One afternoon during the family’s trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what seems like a heart attack. That’s not far-fetched either, as she is getting on in years and her heart is weak. But Colonel Carbury has some questions about that explanation and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and talks to each person on the sightseeing tour, including the members of the Boynton family. It turns out that each one of them had a very good motive for murder, and as we find out more about the family, we find out how dysfunctional a mother Mrs. Boynton really was.

Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool tells the story of the wealthy Slocum family. Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter about her to her husband James. The letter alleges that she’s been having an affair, and Maude is sure that if her husband finds out about it, he’ll divorce her. Archer agrees to take the case and begins his work. He soon finds that the Slocum family has its share of dysfunction. Maude’s mother-in-law, matriarch Olivia Slocum, has control of the family money and manipulates everyone financially. What’s more, she’s the domineering type who keeps her son tied to her proverbial apron strings. When Olivia is found dead in the family swimming pool, it seems quite possible that a member of her family could have been responsible. Archer also finds out though that oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wants the drilling rights to the Slocum land, and Olivia Slocum was not willing to cede them. So it’s just as possible that Kilbourne or someone he paid could have killed the victim. Among other things, this is definitely a case of a mother who makes other mothers feel better about their parenting.

In Minette Walters’ The Scold’s Bridle, the body of Mathilda Gillespie is found in her bathtub with her wrists slashed. On her head is a ‘scold’s bridle,’ a medieval punishment device with a tongue clamp that was used on nagging wives. The first theory is that this is a bizarre case of suicide. But then it comes out that the victim has willed her considerable fortune to her doctor Sarah Blakeney. Now it’s rumoured that Blakeney killed her patient to get her hands on that money. In order to clear her name, Blakeney goes back through the dead woman’s life to see who could have wanted to kill her. Then she discovers some old diaries that give her the real clues to the murder. Without spoiling the story I can say that Mathilda Gillespie wouldn’t win the award for ‘Mother of the Year.’

Ruth Rendell has written more than once about dysfunctional motherhood both under her own name and as Barbara Vine. Let me just offer one example. In One Across, Two Down (which Rendell wrote under her own name), we meet Stanley and Vera Manning, who live with Vera’s mother Maude. Maude is not exactly ‘perfect mother’ material – at all. She belittles her daughter and despises her son-in-law and for Stanley’s part the feeling is most definitely mutual. But Maude is a wealthy woman, and Stanley and Vera are barely getting by. So there doesn’t seem much choice but to bide their time until Maude dies. Matters come to a head though, and Stanley decides on a course of action. Things don’t work out as planned though, and in fact, they soon spin out of control. Throughout the novel, we can see clearly that Maude is by no means a paragon of good motherhood.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She has set herself up as a sort of ‘life coach’ and celebrity, but in her personal life, she is far from a role model. She is verbally sadistic and extremely selfish, and no-one is happy when she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. Soon enough, de Poitiers has alienated just about everyone and caused some serious resentment. Then, at the traditional Boxing Day curling match, she is murdered by electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team take on the case. They soon find that they have a long list of suspects. One of the threads that run throughout this novel is the way dysfunction and dysfunctional motherhood have worked in the de Poitiers family.

There are of course a lot of other crime novels in which mothers prove to be severely dysfunctional to say the least. Some of them I’m not mentioning because it would give away spoilers. Besides, the vast majority of mothers care deeply about their children and do the best job they can to raise their children with love. But those other kinds of mothers are certainly out there. Mums like that may give you the shivers, but they do make those of us who are mothers ourselves feel a lot better about our own parenting.  Which ones stand out in your mind?

Many thanks for the inspiration to Moira at Clothes in Books. Her post on bad mothers in literature at the Guardian’s book page really got me thinking. Do read it and do pay her excellent blog a visit. It’s a treasure trove of commentary on clothes, culture, fiction and what it all says about us.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Waters’ Mother.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Minette Walters, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell

29 responses to “Mother’s Gonna Keep You Right Here Under Her Wing*

  1. Wow thank you! I am honoured to have inspired such a riveting post. Great examples! I’m going to nominate Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral. Great Aunt Caroline is a powerful matriarch (mother to some, aunt to others) who exercises far too much control over the collection of relatives living in her big old house in Cambridge.

    • Moira – Trust me, I’m the one who’s grateful. You had such a great idea and I have to admit it was fun (if a little creepy!) to plan this post. I love your nomination, too. Not only is it a terrific example of exactly the kind of mother I had in mind, but also, it’s a good reminder that I need to re-read some of Allingham’s work. It’s all too easy to lose track of those fine series because there is sooo much good stuff out there.

  2. Margot, I loved this post. You combined two of my favorite things in the world – Psychological mysteries and Pink Floyd. Minette Walter’s The Scold’s Bridle was creepy wonderfulness and Rendell is one of my favorites. Reading those books made me feel like I am an okay mother, no matter how many mistakes I make along the way.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you! I’m so glad you liked this post. And let’s face it: The Wall is about as psychological as it gets. It’s arguably Pink Floyd at their best (OK, perhaps Dark Side of the Moon, but still…). At any rate, I think both Walters and Rendell are brilliant at psychological mysteries. And they do so without overdoing the gory which to me, takes talent. And I know what you mean; I felt that I hadn’t screwed up too much as a mother myself after reading those books.

  3. Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace is a chilling story about a very cold mother. That novel put me back on track with that series (I did not like the 1st book so much). I find many of Ruth Rendell’s non-Wexford books too uncomfortable to enjoy, but I do think I want to try One Across, Two Down.

    No examples of my own, that are not likely to reveal too much about the story. Moira’s post at the Guardian is a great resource.

    • Tracy – Isn’t that a great post? Moira’s such a treasure trove. You know, it was tough for me too to think of examples for this post that didn’t give spoilers away, so I completely understand what you mean about not revealing too much.
      I have to admit I didn’t find any of the characters in One Across, Two Down really sympathetic and likeable. But I don’t think they were supposed to be. The story worked even though you couldn’t call any of the main characters truly appealing. To me it’s a great story of psychological suspense, but you’ll decide for yourself what you think. Interesting isn’t it how Rendell has one sort of style for her Wexford novels, but another (well, others) for her standalones and short story collections. That takes talent.
      Oh, and I agree about A Fatal Grace. What a cold mother! *shudder*

  4. What a great post! Bad mothers make for great literature. Ruth Rendell’s Crocodile Bird is another example of a less than exemplary mom. It was the first Rendell book I ever read, the one that got me hooked on her. And, I’m looking forward to checking out Clothes in Books. As always, I’m anxious to check out the reading material that you recommend!

    • HWGO – Thank you, and thanks for the kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right too, that bad mothers do add a solid and suspenseful layer to a novel. And motherhood is one of those things that just resonate, even for people who are not themselves mothers. I hope you’ll like Clothes in Books; it’s one of my must-visits every day.
      I’m also glad you mentioned Crocodile Bird. It’s so hard to choose the best from among Rendell’s work, because so many of her books are excellent. That’s a very good example of a not-exactly-award-winning mother.

  5. Margot: I have some ambiguity about Charity Wiser in Tapas on the Ramblas by Anthony Bidulka. As the 80 year old matriarch of her family her threats to change her will are so manipulative. At the same time there is considerable generosity in her. In the end I would not want to be her child or grandchild.

    • Bill – You have a well-taken point about Charity Wiser. She is very manipulative and in other ways too I don’t think I would want to be her (grand)child. At the same time, as you say, she’s generous. Still, in the end, no, I wouldn’t want to a relative. Does that make me none the Wiser?

  6. Col

    No examples to contribute. looking forward to the MacDonald book mentioned at some point….probably not this year though. I’m another fan of CiB – she does need to up her quota of noir posts though

  7. Great examples here, Margot! I think Rendell handled bad moms particularly well (psychological treatment and all). I recently read her “Dark Adapted Eye” (a Vine book) and it brought new meaning to dysfunctional…on many levels! Large family tree in that book…

    • Elizabeth – Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed this. And thanks for mentioning Dark-Adapted Eye. I almost chose that one rather than the other Rendell, but in the end I went the other way. So I’m glad you filled in the gap. It’s a truly creepy tale of dysfunction.

  8. I think of the mother in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE as one of the worst mothers of all. Ruth Rendell writes about her fair share of them.

  9. Even early in the morning, I know a line from Pink Floyd The Wall in half a second 🙂

  10. Ha, another subject dear to my heart (well, perhaps dear is the wrong word, but one I am eternally fascinated by)! What additional examples can I contribute? Well, Mother Mother by Koren Zailckas has been labelled a thriller, but it’s more of a family drama with mystery elements, but certainly the mother in there is seriously BAD.
    And for psychological tension and perhaps the ‘bad mother’s side of the story’, I don’t think there are many books to beat ‘Edith’s Diary’ by Patricia Highsmith – her slow descent into madness and her sense of guilt at her son’s descent into crime.

    • Marina Sofia – I know what you mean about ‘fascinating’ if not exactly ‘dear.’ And the topic of motherhood really is isn’t it? I admit I’ve not read Mother Mother, but it certainly sounds like a clear example of what I had in mind. And the Highsmith is another excellent example, made more interesting because we learn the story from the mother’s point of view. Highsmith did such a good job of writing about psychological dysfunction didn’t she?

  11. I still miss Ross MacDonald.If Benjamin Black can pick up where Philip Marlowe quit, why not for Ross MacDonald.

    I wish.

    • Jacqui – I really like Macdonald’s work very much too. Such a strong depiction of life in Southern California, and I think his Lew Archer is a great character. Interesting point about Benjamin Black and Philip Marlowe too.

  12. Oh, how I wish parenting came with a handbook, especially when it comes to that line between being too harsh or being played!

    Mel Sherratt tends to write quite a lot about bad mothers, or rather about circumstances/choices and family relationships and how all these spiral out of control and within that, you see many a “bad” mother.

    I find bad mothers quite hard to read about. It’s out of the natural order. And as a mother, I really feel it.

    • Rebecca – Oh, I so completely know what you mean! I wish so much that there was a user’s manual for each child (because each would have to be different if you think about it). I’ve second-guessed myself a million and a half times, I think *sigh.*
      It is indeed hard sometimes to read about really bad mothers. As you say, it’s not really a natural thing, and it just strikes a nerve with me. And it can be very creepy and unsettling for that reason (among others).
      Thanks for suggesting Sherratt’s work. She’s got a good reputation and I really ought to know her work better. I appreciate the nudge.

  13. A very interesting post, Margot. I teach a lot of Latin American and Arabic students whose experience of family and parenting is largely positive. I sometimes have to point out to them that this isn’t necessarily the case in other countries and that family can be a place of conflict and stress. It can make for some interesting discussions.

    • And it can be a nightmare when I’ve asked the question ‘Who do you most admire’ and everyone chooses their mother.

    • Sarah – Thank you. I think culture has such a powerful influence on the way we view families and parents (and just about everything else too). And as you say, it can be difficult if someone has one cultural view to show them that it’s not the same everywhere. I’ll bet it does make for some really interesting discussions.

  14. Pingback: Never Heard Nothin’ but Bad Things About Him* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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