My Mother, the Detective (1997) by James Yaffe

The great gamut of female detectives is taken up by little old ladies solving mysteries with their inordinate sense of human nature and time-sharpened wit. We all know of the exploits of Miss Jane Marple, Miss Maud Silver, and Miss Hildegarde Withers. But in a little apartment in the Bronx, cooking a mean roast chicken dinner, is another little old lady who proves that, truly, Mother knows best.

Over the course of 80 years, James Yaffe proved himself to be something of a mystery-writing prodigy, being one of, if not the youngest author published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, first publishing when he was a young teenager. From 1943 to 1946, Yaffe wrote six stories for the publication, all locked-room mysteries or impossible crimes featuring the aptly named Department of Impossible Crimes. Only one of these stories has since been anthologized, that being the exceptionally clever “The Problem of the Emperor’s Mushrooms”, re-published in the Mystery Writer’s Association’s All But Impossible! locked-room mystery anthology.

Impossible crimes, however, would only be a footnote in Yaffe’s career, as in 1952 Yaffe would kickstart a series of short stories and novels that would span seven decades! We’re talking, of course, about Mom, who made her written debut in 1952 in “Mom Knows Best”. Since this story, Yaffe would publish another four stories from 1953 to 1955 featuring mom, another three from 1966 to 1968, four novels from 1988 to 1992, and another story in 2002.

As a series, “Mom” is fairly formulaic in structure — I clued into this within the first page of the first story, in fact, after realizing that the first seven paragraphs introducing Mom and our narrator Dave are nearly word-for-word identical to the first seven paragraphs introducing the same two characters in A Nice Murder for Mom, the first Mom novel, published 36 years later.

Nearly every Mom story has our narrator, a police detective, and his wife Shirley visiting his Jewish mother in the Bronx for a Friday night dinner of roast chicken. Although she makes fun of him for his job, insisting it requires no brains, she still takes an inordinate interest in hearing about the cases her son is struggling with (usually with him arresting the wrong person as the killer and her proving their innocence), asking “three little questions” that always seem bizarre at the outset, and lording it over him that she can crack the case before dessert, all the while Shirley occasionally butts head with Mother, not liking the way she talks over Davie; Mother, in turn, butts heads with Shirley, not liking the way she talks over Davie, and Davie just tries to keep the peace. And then, come the solution, (ROT13) qrfcvgr gurer orvat n fznyy frg bs fhfcrpgf, Zbz jvyy zber bsgra guna abg cebir ubj gur xvyyre jnf n zvabe onpxtebhaq punenpgre zragvbarq va gur zbfg pbairavrag bs cnffvatf.

The first two stories, “Mom Knows Best”, in which Mother solves the murder of a promiscuous young women in a hotel after three suitors come to visit her one after the other, and “Mom Makes a Bet”, in which Mother proves that the meek little waiter Davie arrested for poisoning the soup of a rude customer is innocent of the crime, are the purest forms of this formula.

In the introduction to My Mother, the Detective, Yaffe explains he had moments of disillusionment with the detective story as a vehicle for a puzzle of murder. He felt, at times, that he had “graduated” to more mature, character-oriented writing in his career since he’d become an adult. Over time, he says, he began to reconcile with the craft, realizing that he’d never fall out of love with it, but also that there’s no reason the detective story can’t also have flesh-and-blood characters and be in touch with reality. Hence, over time, while the Mom stories were always problem-oriented detective stories, they’d slowly grow to be equally fascinated with the characters and their psychology, albeit in an unfussy, unobtrusive way. This included — or, in fact, highlighted the character of the detective.

In the introduction, Yaffe describes “meaningful eccentricities” — traits that seem like silly quirks on the outside, but present insight into the character’s psychology on retrospection — as one of his guiding philosophies for writing Mom. Going forward, quirks established in the first two stories are retroactively given more depth as Mom’s character is fleshed out from a loving caricature of a Jewish mother to a loving portrait of a Jewish mother.

Starting with the third story, “Mom in the Spring”, while the basic formula is relatively in tact, the actual telling of the stories start to shift a little. Davie and Shirley still visit for Friday night dinner, Mom still listens to her son’s stories, still asks “three little questions”, and then, finally, elucidates. However, in this story, despite her constant bickering with Mother, Shirley and Davie have agreed to set her up with Davie’s coworker, Inspector Millner. She immediately takes a keen liking to him, falling for his “helpless eyes” that appeal to her constant need to mother someone. Mother’s… motherly habits also play into the fourth story “Mom Sheds a Tear”, in which Davie arrests a five-year-old boy for murder. Mother refuses to stop harassing Davie about having a child of his own, and proves that the five-year-old is innocent to show him that children are the best gift in the world. For once, however, Mother, in her constant infantilization of those she dotes on, fails to realize that all men were once someone’s gift. Davie lords it over her that the true murderer was also somebody’s child once.

This greater introspection into the identity of Mom gives the stories more flavor and character, and turns Mom into a more compelling and interesting character. However, it also comes at the expense of the actual reasoning that brings about the explanation.

Mom’s detection style can essentially be boiled down to a bisection between Miss Marple and early Ellery Queen. She’s an armchair sleuth solving crimes related to her exclusively through stories from her son, and is equipped with Miss Marple’s knowledge of human knowledge and constant references to stories that tangentially relate to the murder case. She, however, also has Ellery Queen’s propensity for chaining together deductions into deductions — a typical Mom denouement is not a collection of disparate observations and contradictions that build up a picture of the crime, but instead one fatal observation that unleashes a swarth of deductions after inductions after abductions that break apart Davie’s understanding of the crime. Something like “we know that these two irreconcilable facts are presented to us, therefore this one is false, which gives a new perspective on an older detail that suggests that we were totally mistaken about this person’s turn of phrase, which by turn also suggests that the killer did this, and since the only person who was in the position to do that was this person for XYZ reasons, it stands to reason that they’re the killer” would be perfectly at home in an earlier Mom denouement.

It’s an interesting combination that in the best of the mystery plots, like “Mom Makes a Bet”, creates tight reasoning that points irrefutably in the killer’s direction. Occasionally, however, overreaching gender and age psychology (“this is undeniably the handwriting of a lonely old woman and no other person could write like this”, “no woman would ever open the door to a man and be caught dead without wearing lipstick”, “no child would ever question a lie told to them however much it conflicted with their understanding of the world”) can sometimes make the logic feel a little loose and, by extension, less credible. Not, necessarily, that her methods are wrong, but just that they’d only be right in moments when she lucks into crimes involving the perfect archetypes of what she believes the psychology of every demographic on Earth is, and only if we assume that this psychology is universally applicable, are Mom’s arguments perfectly sound. In defense of Mom, there is usually a more concrete detail suggesting that something is significantly wrong (for example, someone claiming to see something years before that something even exists) and the psychological clues tend to be supporting details that help resolve that conflict, but in the worst of cases it absolutely goes well beyond where I can be expected to reasonably buy into Mom’s logic. And since the stories always end with the police making a real arrest, I can only imagine these deductions being laughed out of any courtroom in the world…

Another problem with the Mom detection style is her “three little questions”. When all is said and done, and all of the information presented, Mom’s deductions are at the very least valid and reasonable. However, these three little questions are always the three cinching details that show us the correct interpretation of the crime. Before them, you’re not meant to be able to entirely solve the crime. It’s always implied that Mom simply divined the solution from the first pass, and then asked the questions that would retroactively confirm the theory she’d already constructed. It’s never, in any one of the stories, explained how Mom reached the correct conclusion from half-complete information, and in a few instances it borders on omniscience.

That all being said, My Mother, the Detective is an interesting look at an author’s reconciliation with a genre he once had a disdain for. Mom grows into one of the most charming and delightful “spinster” sleuths in the genre, and the mysteries are on the whole incredibly satisfying! That all aside, James Yaffe’s work is clever, charming, colorful, and well-worth anyone’s attention — even if it’s just to see what Ellery Queen would’ve been like as a little old Jewish mother.

As with all of my posts like this, we’ll round things off with a ranking of each individual story in the collections. While I’m moving more towards discussing collections and anthologies holistically, instead of breaking down each individual story, I still want to include this segment at the end of these reviews to at least get my individual opinions on each story out in the open. I’ll leave a sentence or two describing the story and my opinion on it, but ultimately these segments are skippable.

  1. “Mom Makes a Bet” – 8.50/10 – A waiter is falsely accused of poisoning a rude customer. The tightest and most credible reasoning in the collection, one of the most clever clues, and a denouement Ellery Queen would be proud of. Easily a favorite of mine.
  2. “Mom Makes a Wish” – 8.25/10 – A drunk ex-professor is falsely accused of murdering his former boss. Highly psychological, but this story supports the psychology with clever physical evidence that makes it credible.
  3. “The Haunted Mink” – 8.00/10 – A doctor takes out a loan to buy his wife a wildly expensive mink coat she’s been wanting since they got married a month ago. However, after they find out the previous owner committed suicide, a series of supernatural phenomena surrounding the coat — the coat being yanked off her body, a psychic relaying a death threat from the coat’s late owner — eventually culminates in the mink apparently coming to life and smothering the woman to death. The supernatural element here isn’t the most atmospheric, and is hammy in presentation, but the set-up is the most original of all the Mother stories. The explanation for the “hauntings” is about what you expect, but the actual motive makes this clever and, in my opinion, the most seamless marriage between the characters and the mystery. The murder is a minor point.
  4. “Mother Knows Best” – 7.75/10 – A promiscuous young woman is murdered in her hotel room after being visited by three suitors. Features overreaching psychology, but it’s ultimately a minor point that’s supported by other contradictions. A very clever and satisfying clue near the end, and a good reversal with its double-solution. Another entry for Ellery Queen.
  5. “Mom Sings an Aria” – 7.25/10 – A feud between two opera lovers culminates in one being poisoned during a performance, and Mom proves the other isn’t the killer. Awash in farfetched psychology, but in this story the psychology is majorly texturing, or supported by facts that make the important deductions credible. Charming and colorful in its passion for opera, with some good logic, but by far less outright clever than most other stories in the collection. The solution is fairly obvious. Mom is at her most charming.
  6. “Mom Sheds a Tear” – 6.75/10 – A five-year-old boy starts acting up after his late father’s brother moves into their house. The child is later falsely accused by Davie of murdering his uncle by pushing him off of a balcony. The clues are conceptually very neat, and parts of the “killer’s” plan are clever, but the psychology in this one is invasive, overreaching and borderline absurd, patronizing to children and untrue when applied to practically every five-year-old I’ve ever known in my life. The explanation for how the victim actually died makes sense, but is a bit of an anti-climax and unintentionally almost comical. Has one of my favorite scenes with Mom and Davie.
  7. “Mom in the Spring” – 5.25/10 – A woman’s romantic pen pal appears to have murdered her — a fate that her son and daughter-in-law had warned her and the police about. My least favorite story in the collection. Messily plotted, much unverifiable, overgeneralized psychology, generally obvious and unsurprising. As with all of the Mom stories, there’s a few clever ideas, some smart clues, a neat twist or two, but in all this is the weakest Mom story.