Monday, January 25, 2010

O, mother, where art thou?

I don't remember the details or the source, but I think Rebecca Cantrell once told an interviewer that becoming a mother had influenced her writing.

I admit a slight temptation to roll my eyes at this, a temptation, that disappeared, however, soon after I started reading Cantrell's novel A Trace of Smoke. Cantrell sets the book in the least relaxing of cities — Berlin — in the least relaxing of times — 1931. The Nazi party is on the rise, and people disappear daily, their photos to turn up in the city's Hall of the Unnamed Dead.

Hannah Vogel finds a photo of her brother there and, for a reason particular to the time, must conceal this fact as she searches for information about him. And then 5-year-old Anton turns up, claiming Hannah is his mother. Thus a second mystery for Hannah: Who are the child's real parents?

More later, but for now:

What other crime stories feature mothers, would-be mothers or motherless children? And, in a genre where victims disappear permanently by being killed, is it a surprise that more authors don't write about children and others the victims leave behind them?

(Read a short excerpt from A Trace of Smoke here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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35 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Well, there's Sophie Hannah's The Wrong Mother for a start. Just read it recently and thought it was excellent.

v word=booka

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If her name keeps coming up, I may have to read her. Seems to me I've heard good things. Quite naturally I'm not surprised that the first two authors names emerge in this discussion are women.

Forgive me for saying that the title calls to mind "The Wrong Trousers." It must be the pictures of Wallace and Gromit in the post immediately below this one.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

You ignoring my email?

Is that a no?

Or a your daughter is so rude that I'm not speaking o you any more?

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I'm putting in a vote for A Trace Of Smoke being one of the best books of the year. And btw it's nominated for the Bruce Alexander Award.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Gary. For anyone wondering, the Bruce Alexander Memorial Award is presented at the Left Coast Crime convention to the year's best historical mystery covering events before 1950.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Gary!

Peter, in an attempt to make your eyes roll clean out of your head, here's the source for the mothering and fiction quote, an essay I wrote for the New York Times parenting blog.

Wear protective goggles!

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/rebecca-cantrell/

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Rex Stout had two Wolfe stories with mothers in mind: The Father Hunt and The Mother Hunt.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, that's not a no, you impudent whelp. And your daughter's manners are at least as good yours, if not better.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rex Stout had two Wolfe stories with mothers in mind: The Father Hunt and The Mother Hunt.

Linkmeister, I thought those were his family biographies of the texas clan that tried to corner the silver market.

How do mothers and children figure in those stories?

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, goggles ought to work against flying prosciutto.

Loss of control ... a resonant thought for a crime writer and for a crime-fiction protagonist, too. Thanks for the link.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Dorte H said...

If Sophie Hannah´s name keeps coming up ..

Well, her earlier novel, Little Face, also features a mother and a baby.

And I just found this link via the FriendFeed crime and mystery reading room: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/24/AR2010012402505.html

- another mother & baby story though it may not be as good as Hannah´s.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, that's a no to "You ignoring my email?", not a no to anything you wrote in the e-mail I wasn't ignoring.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Dorte. The cover certainly plays up the mother's nightmare angle.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

You called me impotent so now I'm not talking to you.

Seriously though. I will admit to seeing things different now that I'm a parent. Perhaps having a different set of filters in place. I could imagine it affecting ones writing, just as any other thing could affect ones writing.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, you ought to read Rebecca’s essay. I made this post thinking that motherhood could affect the story. She has fascinating things to say about the process of writing. Some of what she says would apply to tasks other than writing as well, I think.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

I assume that Camilleri's The Snack Thief fits the category of a crime story featuring a motherless child, with the interesting detail that the child in question reappears in other novels.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an excellent choice considering the child's role in Salvo's life and Livia's. I don't know if Andrea Camilleri has children, but he thinks more deeply about parenthood in this book than most authors do, male or female.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

My choice for this theme is Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? but I can't say more about it without giving away the punch line. It was my favourite book of the year for 2008. Brilliant writing in any genre.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In The Father Hunt a young woman (last name DeNovo, a nice bit of wordplay) hires Wolfe & Archie to find her father, who abandoned her mother. She gets access to the two by virtue of working for Lily Rowan.

In The Mother Hunt young widow finds a baby abandoned on her doorstep with a note pinned to the blanket saying "a baby should live where its father did." So she wants to know if her dead husband did in fact father the child. This one is the book in which we learn that Archie is not exclusively Lily's man.

January 25, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Mothers, from the saintly to the psychopathic, are frequently major characters in Ross Macdonald’s crime fiction. I recently read “The Wycherley Woman” (1961) in which the title character is a disturbed and imbalanced woman yet whose personal history makes her a somewhat sympathetic character. Many of the Lew Archer novels feature dysfunctional families.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series often feature mothers as main characters. A little-seen but influential matriarch of a politically and artistically influential family appears in “Set in Darkness” (2000). In “Dead Souls” (1999) Rebus investigates the disappearance of an old girlfriend’s teenage son. In this novel and in “A Question of Blood” Rankin explores not only the deep emotional impact the loss of a child can have on his/her family but how this loss can dictate family members’ futures in unpredictable ways. Ruth Rendell also excavates this territory in her crime fiction.

“…is it a surprise that more authors don't write about children and others the victims leave behind them?” Perhaps when they do, their publishers market these novels as serious “literature” (such as Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”) and remove that “crime fiction” genre label. Also, many authors end their tale within a short time of the murder being resolved and so do not choose to explore the aftermath of a child’s death.

Richard Hughes’s “A High Wind in Jamaica” (1929) is often cited as being one of the most insightful novels about children and childhood ever written but Hughes himself had no children.

And Andrea Camilleri has 3 children.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, When Will There Be Good News? has been oft recommended, which means I may read it one day. Thanks fot the tease.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Linkmeister. The Mother Hunt has some of the overtones of A Trace of Smoke. Did Rex Stout publish the two books together?

Rebecca Cantrell lives in your state, by the way.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I read one short story of MacDonald's in which a mother takes decisive action on her daughter's behalf in a way that makes her a sympathetic, though criminal, character.

Your mention of MacDonald reminds me that family intrigue was an undertone of much hard-boiled fiction in the '20s through the '50s and maybe in the early '60s. Think of the tyrannical aunt (was she an aunt?) in "The Thin Man," for instance.



I'd forgotten, too, that the one Ruth Rendell novel I've read involves a mother and a son, though not quite the way I was getting at in this post. I didn't know about Rankin's visiting and revisiting such themes.

“…is it a surprise that more authors don't write about children and others the victims leave behind them?”

Perhaps when they do, their publishers market these novels as serious “literature” (such as Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”) and remove that “crime fiction” genre label. Also, many authors end their tale within a short time of the murder being resolved and so do not choose to explore the aftermath of a child’s death.

Now, there's something worth thinking about. Thanks. And thanks for the information on Camilleri.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Mother Hunt, 1963. Father Hunt, 1968.

If Ms. Cantrell lives here, I'd better go read her essay, hadn't I?

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be good reading even if she lived in Idaho or Nebraska.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and I asked if the two stories had been published together because current editions of the Nero Wolfe books often include two or more usually three novellas. I thought Rex Stout might have conceived or published these two ogether.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I just read it. It makes good sense.

If she changed her book title to "A Trace of Vog" she'd describe what the volcano on that island she lives on is sending our way. They even got traces of the stuff out on Kauai today. That's the furthest west of the Neighbor Islands, several hundred miles away from the Big Island of Hawaii.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh. No, they were each standalone novels. He never wrote long novels, though; I think neither was more than about 160 pages. The three-novella books were different animals.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll defer to your knowledge of Hawaiian geography because mine is nil. I don't even know what island she lives on, as the return address was smudged on a package that she sent me.

And I had never come across the word vog until now. I haven't spent much time around volcanoes, I guess.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. You're the Wolfe man!

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, check this out.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

Fortunately, we had no vog problems when we were in Hawai'i. Thanks for the kind words, Peter. According to the wikipedia entry in Italian, Camilleri has three daughters.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, I'm learning more about Camilleri's family each day. Thanks.

Here are your Hawaii photographs -- recommended viewing for all!

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Mysti Lou said...

Very interesting question!

Far better to leave kids out than to use them as mere props, plus I don't know how many writers are asking dramatic questions that kids or widows/widowers can help with (here I'm assuming all mystery novels ask a dramatic question that, when answered, ends the story).

A Trace of Smoke treats all the victims of Hitler's rise to power with equal respect and dignity, as she does the victims of the killer in her story.

Kids can be hard to manage as characters, it's difficult to make them dramatically active, though A Trace shows how to do it beautifully...

February 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The child in Trace of Smoke is a wonderfully effective dramatic device. You may glean from these comments that I at first thought that this is what Rebecca Cantrell meant when she wrote that being a mother had infuenced her writing. She meant something else, as it turned out, but I still suspect that having a child figure in the story in the way this one does is likelier from a female author than a male one. I realize I am treading on dangerous territory in making such an assumption, though.

March 01, 2010  

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