Mystery writers are often harsh to mothers.
They spin stories of mothers driving their children to homicidal rage with their controlling presence or their indifferent absence.
Or they refuse support and affection, creating emotionally unstable sociopaths and serial killers.
Or they are left suicidal when some other mother’s child murders their own.
“They always blame the mother,” my mother would mutter darkly during the years I was in therapy. It certainly seems to be true of those who pick up pen or mouse to write a story.
Here for your entertainment are some of the best mystery stories I’ve reviewed featuring a mother. Please be warned: this not Hallmark territory. At the same time, not all of the mothers featured in these books are wicked.
- The Lost Man by Jane Harper. I can’t reveal much about this story without spoiling it. Two women in this book are married to men who appear to be fine, upstanding people. At home, though, these men are beasts of a different stripe. Both women are mothers and highly protective of their children and grandchildren. After a mysterious death on an Australian cattle station, clues slide out slowly until your jaw drops and and you think, “OMG!” at the end of the book.
- The Daughter by Jane Shemilt. This is one of the most popular posts on this blog. When physician Jenny Malcolm’s teenage daughter Naomi goes missing after a school theatrical performance, Jenny’s world turns upside down. As the police investigation unfolds, Jenny is forced to face the fact that her perfect life was seriously flawed. Not until the last pages does she (or the reader) find out whether Naomi was kidnapped, murdered or ran away.
- Little Deaths by Emma Flint. The police and her neighbors automatically turn accusing eyes to Ruth Malone when her two children — Frank, Jr., 5, and his sister Cindy, 4 — are kidnapped and murdered one summer night in 1965. No evidence ties Ruth — or anyone else — to the murders. Ruth was a woman ahead of her time: she smokes, she drinks, she enjoys the company of men. Her neighbors and the police investigating the case punish her harshly for not fitting the role of a 1950s-style housewife. The murderer’s confession at the end of the book is horrifying. This is based on a true case that remains unsolved today.
- The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. Mrs. Westaway’s bitter, bickering children probably didn’t shower her with candy and flowers on Mother’s Day. As this dark, gothic tale unfolds, however, readers discover that Mrs. Westaway isn’t the one to be afraid of.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This horror classic revolves around 32-year-old Eleanor Vance, who has escaped a hated mother and sister to volunteer for a research project into the paranormal phenomena in the Victorian monstrosity, Hill House. Her poor nurturing left her either vulnerable to an evil force or a twisted conduit for her own rage. You decide.
- Obscura by Joe Hart. Dr. Gillian Ryan is not a bad mother. She is willing to take on a dangerous, six-month assignment in outer space with NASA to keep researching a cure for a contagious, degenerative disease that took her husband’s life and has now infected her daughter Carrie. Too late, Gillian discovers she wasn’t told the full story about her assignment and now may not survive it.
- Killer Instinct by Zoë Sharp. Charlie Fox has spent a lifetime believing her parents don’t understand or love her. Their disappointment in her began when her twin brother died at birth and she survived, and continued as she refused to be the feminine girl they wanted; joined the Army; volunteered for Special Operations training that turned her into a killing machine; got gang-raped by four fellow soldiers and involved in two public trials that were decided against her. The baby steps the Fox family takes toward understanding each other are glacially slow and ongoing. This is a case where a little family therapy would have gone a long way.
- In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward. The mother in this story, Yvonne Jenkins, is found dead in a hotel room with an empty packet of tranquilizers and a near-empty bottle of vodka beside her on the anniversary of her daughter Sophie’s disappearance in 1978. But when another local woman is found strangled, police are challenged to figure out what if any relationship exists between the current and the earlier crimes.
- The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney. Detective Inspector (DI) Lottie Parker is juggling a career and raising three children as a recent widow. On New Year’s Eve, she’s assigned to investigate a corpse found in a church. Other murders follow with thin links to an abandoned orphanage where Parker’s mother once worked.
- The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. Joe Talbert is trying to get through college without his self-centered alcoholic mother throwing him off-track. Even though he knows a college education is the only way to avoid the lives his parents had, he feels guilty about leaving his autistic brother in his mother’s care. A college writing assignment leads to his meeting a dying ex-con, Carl Iverson. Iverson’s incredible story moves him to dig deeper and deeper until he can clear Iverson’s name.
- Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. Some mothers just leave havoc and mischief wherever they stick their noses. Such is the case with Darren Mathews’ mother, who was a teenager when he was born. He was raised almost from birth by his twin paternal uncles William and Clayton Mathews. His mother is never far away and always has her hand out. Often underestimated, this canny, self-centered woman figures out a way to ruin her son’s life by the end of the book.
Perhaps the moral of this post is that if you have a writer in your life, be kind. You never know when, where or how you’ll find yourself presented in a book.
Happy Mother’s Day!