Mothers and motherhood are an ever-present theme in fiction, exploring and reflecting back the cultural and societal pressures of the day and what is expected of mothers and women. As a theme it provides rich pickings for crime fiction and domestic noir, arising from the inherent tensions, compromises and complexities that surround the experience for women and families.
Whether it be storylines around fertility and pregnancy (e.g. The Hush, The Secret She Keeps), the overwhelming physical and emotional upheaval of new motherhood (e.g. The Shadow House, The Push), complicated mother-child relationships (e.g. We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Murder Rule), the loss of identity and sense of remaking one’s self following motherhood (e.g. The Mother Fault), or the act of keeping one’s child safe from harm (e.g. The Mother, Six Minutes, Someone Else’s Child); narratives that centre motherhood and parenting are becoming a mainstay of crime fiction, particularly as more women write in the genre lending their own experience and emotional truth to the work.
Motherhood is a running theme in my own crime fiction series, The Torrent and Taken in which my protagonist Detective Kate Miles struggles to balance the expectations of family and the demands of her job in the police force.
As a reader, I particularly enjoy complex portrayals of mother characters that go beyond gentle devotional motherhood (think Marmee March from Little Women), and instead grapple with the hard graft and sometimes ugly side of parenting. In Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of a teenage killer is a compelling depiction of a woman struggling with her assigned role in life, resenting the loss of her professional identity, feeling at various times ambivalent, in over her head, and trapped within the experience of motherhood. This is a novel that explores parental responsibility and the role of nature verses nurture in the creation of a violent offender, without providing any easy answers.
In Robert Bloch’s, 1959 horror novel, Psycho, later adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock, the maternal instinct gone wrong looms large as the villain architype. The domineering and puritanical influence of Mrs Bates, is seen as the root cause of the psychosis affecting her son, Norman, a lone motel owner and serial killer. Contemporary novels such as Michael Robotham’s The Secret She Keeps and Kylie Orr’s Someone Else’s Child, paint a far more complex and sensitive picture of women whose present day crimes are informed by their past trauma as mothers.
Storylines that centre children – under threat, missing or deceased – feature heavily in crime fiction, as it drills into the very worst fear of parents. These stories kick up the tension and allow writers to follow every aspect of the parent-child relationship from grief, loss and trauma (e.g. The Safe Place, Room) to gritty and action-filled narratives around mothers as defenders and protectors (e.g. The Chain, The Good Mother). I pick up this theme in my own novel Taken, which delves into the disappearance of an infant against a background of intimate partner violence, exploring the fallout on family and the mother characters in the novel.