Sunday, December 20, 2009

Supermoms, Supersleuths!

Today’s guest blogger is Canadian writer, Jill Edmondson whose first novel has just appeared in bookstores all over North America — to some excellent reviews, I might add. She also...but then, why don’t I just let her get to it?


Hey all you writers out there (published and aspiring)! This may just be an untapped niche for you to exploit: Supermoms, Supersleuths!

Crime fiction is quick to latch on to socio-cultural changes, and it is also (usually) quick to reflect shifting demographics. To that end, crime fiction nowadays is pretty diverse: We have gay police officers, black private eyes, priests who sleuth on the side, physically challenged lawyers, senior citizen amateur gumshoes, and so on. For more information on the breadth of protagonists in crime fiction, have a look at the Diversity Index on the website Stop You’re Killing Me:

Along with other socio-cultural changes, women in crime fiction have come a very long way in recent years, especially since 1977 when Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone, the first ‘hardboiled’ female sleuth. We now have several kick-ass female sleuths, including Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski; Liz Brady’s Jane Yeats, and Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlyle. Women (besides being avid mystery readers) have a strong presence in crime fiction. According to scholar and mystery aficionada Maureen Reddy:

In the 1980s, 207 new mystery series by women were begun, most of them featuring female protagonists; an average of 79 new titles were published in those series annually. Roughly half of those series were begun in the last three years of the decade. By the end of the 1980s, then, the situation for readers wanting to move from Nancy Drew to adult female detectives had changed utterly from what it had been when the Nancy Drew series began in 1929. Instead of having trouble finding mystery books with female detectives, readers were likely to find it difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of such books published. The 1990s have continued this trend (“The Female Detective” in Mystery and Suspense Writers, pages 1047 to 1067).

For many years, the traditional dick was a “lonely man” according to Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder”. And, he was isolated, with no family circle or genealogical background to speak of. Robert B. Parker echoed this in an essay in the late 1970s in which he stated that the hardboiled hero “is not of the people; he is alone. His adventures are solitary statements.” Scholar Lewis D. Moore expands on this by saying:

Except for occasional references to family members, earlier hardboiled detectives have no distinct pasts.... This withheld past of course objectifies them in ways that clarify the hardboiled detective in his early stages … In the modern period, the families of both the detectives and their clients become important focuses.

Over the years, the protagonists have changed from the isolated PI with no past and no family, to the sleuths of today who have parents and siblings, maybe an aunt or a grandparent. Today’s detectives also have families of their own: they may be married, divorced, or foster-parents. The point is that families – biological or chosen – are part of our modern day mysteries. As Lewis D. Moore states in “Lies and Deceit: The Family in the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel”:

Whether because of post-sixties societal changes, the advent of feminism, or the problematic shift of the hardboiled detective novel towards elements of the novel of manners and morals, … relationships have assumed increasing importance.

However, a gap remains. There seems to be an under-representation of single moms in mystery fiction. Now, before you start yelling at me and saying “what about [insert character name here]?” I am thinking in particular about single mothers in crime fiction who have official law enforcement or investigative jobs. And I’m thinking of series. And I’m thinking of children who are still minors, not adult children.

Yes, there are a number of amateur single mothers who figure out whodunit, but crime solving is something they stumble into. Some examples of these ‘accidental’ detectives include the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen (Kilbourn is a university professor), or the catering capers featuring Goldy Schulz by Diane Mott Davidson, and then there’s also Marianne MacDonald’s series featuring bookseller Dido Hoare.

But where are the single mom police procedurals? Why isn’t there a series featuring a private eye who rushes off to pick up her kid from daycare?

When I began wondering about this question, I sent out a query to members of Sisters in Crime asking for suggestions of series that fit these parameters. I was told of a few stand-alone titles, and several responses included suggestions for ‘accidental’ single mom sleuths, but I got very few leads for single mother cops, investigators, or other ‘official’ law enforcement jobs.

It seems, perhaps, that the roles of sleuth and single mother are to some extent mutually exclusive. The nature of the work – the irregular hours, the emergencies, the overtime – do not lend themselves well to single mothers in this genre. Childless women can enter and navigate the world of detection, as can be seen by the sheer numbers of female-led series published every year. Peripheral family can also be an element of the story, whether with “little sisters” (Carlotta Carlyle), or via close bonds with the offspring of the detective’s inner circle (Tempe Brennan’s niece Lucy). Perhaps few single mom official law enforcers exist because -to create such a character believably- the sleuth would have to be flawed and unable to satisfy all the demands placed on her (family or career – which one is going to suffer?). The “unofficial” sphere offers sleuths the freedom to chase down leads while making dinner.

Maybe it’s best that single moms remain within the comfort zone of amateur detective work. Or is it? Maybe this is a gap that needs to be filled.

Cheers, Jill Edmondson
Blood and Groom: A Sasha Jackson Mystery (published by The Dundurn Group) is now in stores!


Vicki Delany said...

in real life, my police officer friend who helps me with my books is a single mom with kids still living at home.

Juanita Rose Violini said...

I think that the age and personality of the child(ren) would be a major factor. Are the offspring super dependent due to age and/or tendency or are they kids who are experimenting with chemicals (like in science, not drugs)in the garage and are old enough to pick up a younger kid at daycare and make them macaroni and cheese with a salad if mom is late.

Vicki Delany said...

Family support is what counts. My friend's ex-husband is also a police officer on the same force. They live very close to each other and the kids have always walked between one house and another.

Vicki Delany said...

There's Gemma James in the series by Deborah Crombie. In the first several books of the series Gemma, a Scotland Yard Detective, is single with a toddler son.

Alison E. Bruce said...

You've made me want to go out and write a story about a single mother (with school-age children) who is a professional detective -- not sure if she's a PI or Police yet.

There's a bit I love from Fargo where the police chief throws up at the crime scene, not because of the body, but because she's suffering from morning sickness.

David said...

There is the new Kathryn Dance series by Jeffery Deaver. She is a single mom (divorced) working as a kinesics expert for the CA Bureau of Investigation.

Mystery Writers Ink Board said...

I read to escape from real life. Ergo, having been a single working parent for many years and faced innumerable child-care crises at moments of high work-stress, I would not have opened a book that had a single working parent as the lead investigator. My first-hand knowledge of the conflict between the job and parenting obligations would have been too real and immediate for me to suspend disbelief and enter willingly into the world of the story.

Jayne Barnard

job said...