Remembering Mama: Two Cozies and…well…Psycho

May 11, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

In the interest of variety, it’s always fun to compare what is somewhat similar but is really so not. Why not examine two rather traditional cozy mysteries about rather traditional mothers—Mother’s Day is May 12, you know–and then look at Robert Bloch’s masterpiece about a different kind of mother altogether?

Mummy Dearest by Joan Hess doesn’t really center on Egyptian mummies–but the author probably found the word play impossible to resist. In the novel we travel to Luxor, Egypt with Claire Malloy, a bookstore proprietor from Faberville, Arkansas. Claire is newly married to her long-time love interest, Lt. Peter Rosen of Faberville’s police department. The trip is supposed to be their honeymoon, but maddeningly, Peter is seldom around; instead he is caught up in mysterious consultations with local officials. However, Claire’s teen-aged daughter Caron and her daughter’s know-it-all best friend, Inez, are companionably underfoot when the girls are not being chased down dark streets or trailed by a scarred, mustachioed Arab. To make matters worse, archaeologists are being mysteriously dispatched with some regularity at a local dig, which has for the past decade to date turned up no artifacts, trinkets, much less mummies.

Claire pines for absent Peter, but finds herself to be of intense interest to her fellow guests at her hotel, Luxor’s Winter Palace–it seems that Claire’s crime solving reputation has somehow preceded her and these guests insist on meeting for drinks sans invitation in her suite on a daily basis. In spite of all these distractions and irritations, Claire lives up to her sleuth extraordinaire reputation, serenely solving murders, foiling a kidnapping, and uncovering an artifact smuggling ring.

Though rather lacking Claire Malloy’s skill at detection, Dorothy Cannell’s Ellie Simmons makes every effort to lead an idyllic life residing in the small English village of Chitterton Fells. How To Murder Your Mother-In-Law is yet another misadventure Ellie unwillingly embarks upon, peopled with characters P.G. Woodhouse or Jerry Seinfeld might well have created. To her delight, Ellie has an enviable home in “Merlin’s Castle”, a handsome chef for a husband, healthy and happy fraternal twin toddlers, and the fashion challenged but worldly-wise char Mrs. Malloy–all of whom make her life worthwhile. Who could ask for anything more?

The answer comes in Ellie’s plan to celebrate the 38th wedding anniversary of her husband’s parents by throwing the perfect dinner party which, of course, goes stunningly awry. There follows a shocking revelation involving her husband’s parents and, after an emotionally fraught contretemps, Ellie gains her highly critical mother-in-law as a permanent houseguest whilst her father-in-law stalks off to take up residence at the local pub. Seeking her girlfriends’ counsel in the bar of the same local pub over G&Ts, Ellie discovers that she isn’t the only one with mother-in-law troubles: all four of her assembled friends have hyper-critical, over-bearing, and impossible in-laws to cope with–they are just as maddened as Ellie finds herself to be. Long on fellow-feeling and short on discretion, the friends discuss hilariously how to dispose of their troublesome relatives only to find in less than 24 hours that one of the maligned mothers-in-law has indeed been murdered. As if this weren’t dire enough, all the girls receive blackmail threats and demands for money or all their murderous plotting will be revealed to the police. How Ellie extricates herself and her friends from this sea of troubles will beguile the reader.

Nothing cozy about Norman Bates, his mother, or the goings on at the Bates Motel, is there? Alfred Hitchcock’s motion picture Psycho has certainly etched an indelible mark on the American psyche–so much so, that in reading Robert Bloch’s original novel one inevitably conjures up visualizations of the black and white film despite every effort to the contrary. While the screenplay is faithful to the plot of the novel, how Hitchcock and his screen writer Joseph Stefano tailored what works very well as literature into a script which made cinematic history is fascinating. For example, Bloch’s Norman is plump, unattractive, and prone to drunken blackouts. He is fascinated by the occult, to psychological theorizing, and given to lengthy interior monologues as well. Very intriguing to compare handsome Anthony Perkins munching candy corn in Hitchcock’s telling, luring the viewer into a false sense of security to that of Bloch’s more likely, realistic portrait based in part on Ed Geim. Too, the reader will find that Bloch persuades even the most seasoned moviegoers reading his novel to suspend their disbelief–dreading the inevitable. Bloch gives little away as the novel unwinds, but strews just enough clues to still make the denouement startling.

Norma Bates is quite a contrast to both Claire Malloy and Ellie Simmons, but we can appreciate their mothering styles all the better in contrast to her. And remember, as Norman Bates tells Mary Crane when they’re first getting acquainted, “I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.”

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


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