Around this time last year, I reviewed James Yaffe's second of four novel-length "Mom" mysteries, Mom Meets Her Maker (1990), which began as a series of short armchair detective stories that ran for sixteen years in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – a total of eight stories were published from 1952 to 1968. Mom is the widowed mother of a New York homicide cop, Dave, who visits her every Friday night up in the Bronx together with his wife, Shirley.
Over a home cooked dinner, Dave tells Mom about one of his tricky, difficult to solve murder case. After listening and some verbal sparring with Shirley, Mom asks three or four "simple questions" whose answers always prove to be very illuminating. Dave knows his mother has a "natural talent for seeing into people's motives and never letting herself be fooled by anybody," which "comes from her long experience with shifty-eyed butchers and delicatessen store clerks." So is usually able "to solve over the dinner table crimes that keep the police running around in circles for weeks." Yaffe revived the series two decades later and moved Mom and Dave from New York to the Mesa Grande, Colorado, where works as the chief investigator for the public defender's office. This period spanned four novel comprising of A Nice Murder for Mom (1988), Mom Doth Murder Sleep (1991), Mom Among the Liars (1992) and the previously mentioned Mom Meets Her Makes. Dave and Mom would make one last appearance in a short story, "Mom Lights a Candle" (2002), commissioned by Crippen & Landru and published as a limited edition chapbook of 353 copies.
It was Crippen & Landru that collected the original eight short stories, published as My Mother, the Detective: The Complete "Mom" Short Stories (1997), which received an enlarged edition in 2016 – adding "Mom Lights a Candle" to the line-up. This collection is generally highly regarded ("one of the most important contemporary collections of mystery short stories") and had been on my wishlist for years. I'm glad Mom Meets Her Maker brought My Mother, the Detective back to my attention as the enlarged edition really is a classic collection of armchair detective fiction.
My Mother, the Detective also comes with a fascinating, must-read introduction in which Yaffe details how his ideas about the detective story went through three different phases. A journey that began when, as a kid, he became mesmerized by the ingenious puzzles the detective story presented. You have to remember Yaffe debuted as a 15-year-old on the pages of EQMM with his short-lived series about Paul Dawn and the Department of Impossible Crimes ("the detective story to me, in that stage of my life, was the puzzle and nothing but the puzzle"). Near the end of the Second World War, Yaffe discovered "real" literature and his attitude towards the genre became "one of hostility." A thankfully short-lived period as he returned to the genre 1952 and wrote his first Mom story to make money ("or at least that was what I told myself"), but really was moving into the second phase. Yaffe began to find a happy balance between the heart (character) and mind (plot) of the detective story. Douglas Greene, of C&L, has once said that the Paul Dawn series, as a whole, is not worthy of being bookformed. Yes, the series was written by a callow teenager whose only point of reference were "other detective stories" and a short story like "Cul de Sac" (1945) can only be described as a painful lesson, but that adds so much more value to the Mom series. A collection of Paul Dawn stories would make a nice contrast to the stories he would go on to write once he matured a little and gained experience. So let's take a closer look at these nine short stories.
"Mom Knows Best," originally published in the June, 1952, issue of EQMM, which is the first recorded instance of Mom employing her ordinary common-sense to solve a murder over the dinner table. Dave has been investigating the murder of Vilma Degrasse, "a genuine platinum blonde," who's living in "a sort of high-class low-class hotel." She has plenty of male admirers buzzing around her. Three men visited her on the night of the murder. A desk clerk and elevator girl verified only those three men went up and came down again. And nobody else. So whodunit? Mom asks some of her wild and woolly questions, which often appear to be irrelevant to the case, but they're usually on the mark. They always lead to the correct solution. A quite a good solution placing this story among the best two or three in this collection. A good and solid series debut!
"Mom Makes a Bet" first appeared in the January, 1953, issue of EQMM and is my favorite for several reasons. Dave is handling a poisoning case, "which is strictly open-and-shut," because the police knows who must have done it – a sweet, kindhearted and well-liked elderly gentleman. What really bothers Dave is the apparently preposterous motive. Irving is an elderly waiter who has been serving the customers of Krumholz' Grotto for 30 years, "always asking the customers about their illnesses and their babies, and remembering, their birthdays and anniversaries, and so on," but one customer took particular pleasure in picking on him. DeWitt Grady, an unlikable theatrical producer, always picked on him and on his latest visit he harassed Irving about not wanting salt in his noodle soup or he'll get terrible heartburn. Grady made such a fuzz that the owner himself, Krumholz, overlooked the order and even tasted a spoonful of the soup to make sure there was no salt in it. But when the soup was served, it was loaded with cyanide and Grady died on the spot. So "the poison must have been put in the soup after it left the kitchen and before it got to Grady," which leaves Irvin as the sole suspect.
Naturally, the kind, old man is completely innocent and that makes it the kind of impossible crime I always associate with Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) series. Mom's reasoning is sound and the best application of her Miss Marple Method that translated into one of Yaffe's better detective tales. More importantly, "Mom Makes a Bet" convinced me Yaffe's Mom series directly influenced Isaac Asimov's Black Widower short stories and believe it entirely possible Asimov modeled Henry on Irving. Just compare the solution of "Mon Makes a Bet" to the first Black Widower story, "The Acquisitive Chuckle" (1972; collected in Tales of the Black Widowers, 1974), which both reveal (SPOILER/ROT13) gur gjb jnvgref gb or fvzhygnarbhfyl vaabprag naq thvygl. Only flyspeck is that it shows Mom's deductions are at their most convincing when picking apart a tightly-knotted puzzle opposed to some of the looser, character-driven problems in other stories. Otherwise, a very well-done impossible crime story strangely overlooked in both Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019).
Unfortunately, "Mom in the Spring," published in the May, 1954, issue of EQMM, turned out to be the weakest story in the collection. The story began interesting enough with Dave and Shirley conspiring to find Mom a new husband and invited "the oldest and most eligible bachelor on the Homicide Squad," Inspector Millner, to their regular Friday night dinner in the Bronx. The dinner conversation traditionally turned to murder. Fittingly, the murder the Homicide Squad has on their hands involved, what can be called, a Lonely Hearts Killer and the victim is an elderly woman, Old Aunt Margaret. She had been lonely enough to put an ad in a personal column and began to receive letters from a tobacco planter in Louisville, Kentucky – named Thomas Keith. This infuriated her dotting nephew and his wife, Edward and Edith Winters, who were convinced Keith had designs on her money. And perhaps even her life. Aunt Margaret ends up being murdered and her body is discovered clutching a telegram from Keith. Unfortunately, the whole scheme is as see-through as plastic wrap and Mom's deductions a little shaky. But more than that, it feels like a missed opportunity. This should have been a non-series story of domestic suspense told from the perspective of Aunt Margaret, which would have made the arrival of the telegram something straight out of The Twilight Zone. Not a highlight of the collection.
"Mom Sheds a Tear" originally appeared in the October, 1954, issue of EQMM and is as unusual a piece of crime fiction as it's interesting that reminded me of Anne van Doorn's "Het joch dat grenzen overschreed" ("The Brat Who Went Too Far," 2017). Dave tells Mom over dinner the sad story of the widowed Agnes Fisher and her 5-year-old son, Kenneth. They live in a four-story house in Washington Square and recent addition to the household is Kenneth's uncle, Nelson Fisher, who contracted malaria in the Pacific. And needed a place to recover. Kenneth first wanted nothing to do with his uncle, but, soon enough, he developed "a case of genuine, full-fledged hero-worship." However, he also began to steal items that belonged to his dead father. This comes to a tragic end when he's on the roof with his uncle and the latter takes a deadly tumble over the edge. Nelson Fisher exclaimed with his dying breath, "Kenny, why? Kenny, why?" Dave tells Mom that "all the indications are that little five-year-old Kenneth Fisher is a murderer," but Mom has her opinions on the matter and asks her usual questions. While the solution certainly is an interesting one, it also feels a little flawed as it reeks of (SPOILER/ROT13) gur nagv-Pbzvpf pehfnqr guvaxvat bs gur 1950f naq Lnssr zhfg unir orra njner bs guvf jrnxarff nf ur gevrq gb ervasbepr gur cybg ol znxvat Xraargu n ybaryl, sevraqyrff obl. A good and original premise, but flawed in it's execution.
"Mom Makes a Wish" was first published in the June, 1955, issue of EQMM and is a short and sweet detective story. Dave and Inspector Millner have "a pretty depressing business on their hands" concerning a former college teacher, Professor Putnam, who went to seed after his wife died. He began to neglect his work, got fired and started drinking. So his daughter had to quite school to take care of his father, but he blames the dean who fired him. It goes without saying he was not very pleased when his daughter became engaged to Dean Duckworth's son and openly threatened to kill him ("and it won't be murder... it'll be an execution"). When the Dean is murdered in the street with a broken whiskey bottle, the situation looks grim for the ex-professor. Mom reasons an alternative solution from the psychology of the characters involved strengthened by some fine, physical clueing."Mom Sings an Aria," published in the October, 1966, issue of EQMM marked the first of two returns of Mom, Dave and Shirley following an 11 year hiatus and poses a similar impossible problem as "Mom Makes a Bet." Dave asks Mom a tantalizing question, "maybe you can understand how a man could love music so much that he'd commit murder for it." The Metropolitan Opera House offers half an hour before every performance standing-room tickets, at two-fifty each, on a first-come first-served basis and opera lovers line up outside hours ahead of time – standing hours in line to stand for three hours during the opera. So a group of regulars have formed over the years and two of them, Sam Cohen and Giuseppe D'Angelo, can be labeled as stereotypical fanboys. For fifteen years, they have been arguing while waiting in line and their latest disagreement is over who's the greatest soprano alive today, Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi? This argument got really heated as Cohen threatened to spoil the next performance of D'Angelo's favorite soprano, Tebaldi. The night Tebaldi sang Tosca, Cohen drank poisoned coffee D'Angelo had bought for him at a nearby cafeteria. So only he could have poisoned the coffee, or did he?
Technically, a really good impossible crime story and an even better take on the theatrical mystery as it shifted the focus from the stage to the audience. Not even the most classiest section of the audience. Very original! However, the problem is easily solved as the plot feels like an amalgamation of previous stories and, reading these stories back-to-back, you can't but notice certain plot-patterns Yaffe favored. So you can anticipate in which direction the solution is headed and spot the clues when they're dropped. Regardless, it's another good and solid entry in the series.
"Mom and the Haunted Mink," originally published in the March, 1967, issue of EQMM and is a personal favorite as the premise of the plot would not have been out of place in Carter Dickson's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940). For years, Dr. Alfred McCloskey has been saving money and even took out bank loan to buy a mink coat for his wife, Mrs. Laura McCloskey. Dr. McCloskey had a lucky break and acquired a practically new mink coat at the reduced prize of five thousand dollars, which "would've cost three times as much at any retail store." However, the previous, now dead, owner vowed she would not allow any other woman wear it. Mrs. McCloskey swears the mink coat has a life of its own as it jumped off her shoulders during a party and, one night, saw "it slid across the floor" out to the foyer where it was found "wrapped around the handle of the front door." As if it tried to leave the house! This ends with Mrs. McCloskey being smothered in her bed, while home alone, which was done with something that left small bits of fur on her lips and in her nostrils. I'm a sucker for these kind of stories and loved the two-pronged solution to the problems. One part of the problem deals with the human element and the motives of the characters involved, while the second-part concerns the murder. And how one tragically lead to the other. Really liked it."Mom Remembers," published in the January, 1968, issue of EQMM, is the longest story in the series and obviously intended to serve as an ending to the series, which can be read as a prequel or origin story for Mom. This story revealed she inherited detective talents from her mother, "a regular genius at solving crime," who solved small, petty problems in the neighborhood. Mother solved one murder when Mom's fiancé, Mendel, is arrested on suspicion of having murdered a woman he knows from work. The retelling of this 45-year-old murder case is interspersed with a sordid murder Dave is currently working on, which appears to be a simple, open-and-shut case. A teenage immigrant, Rafael Ortiz, is suspected of having stabbed a cabdriver during an attempted robbery and Dave himself was an eyewitness, but did he really do it? Mom comes to a different conclusion by drawing a parallel between the very different murder case ("a Jewish boy on the East Side, a Puerto Rican boy on the West Side") from the past and precedent. Characterization and storytelling take precedence over plotting, but a good story nonetheless and served its purpose as the originally intended end to the series.
Yaffe revived Mom and Dave in a short-lived series of mystery novels that lasted from 1988 to 1992, which is where the series would have actually ended had Crippen & Landru not commissioned one last short story in 2002, "Mom Holds a Candle" – published as one of their annual holiday chapbooks. The story served as second ending to the series tying the original run of short stories, sort of, to the novels as it's set in the Mesa Grande and Mom is now in her eighties. "Mom Holds a Candle" takes place over the holidays and Dave has a case on his hands that has "a lot to do with Hannukah." A man "was killed in the middle of a candle-lighting ceremony" and there are more than enough suspects and motives to go around ("injured husbands and outraged fathers, not to mention furious women with shooting experience"). The story appeared to be another instance of characterization and storytelling over plotting, but the ending has a nasty twist in its tail with a clue I completely missed. So another great and, this time, a permanent ending to the series. That's really an accomplishment. Not every Great Detective received a proper sendoff, if they even got one, but Mom got two really good and fitting endings to her detective career. And perhaps there's even a third curtain call as I've no idea how Yaffe ended Mom Among the Liars.
So, all in all, My Mother, the Detective turned out to be an excellently balanced collection of armchair detective stories in which Yaffe tried, and mostly succeeded, to find a way to merge the heart and mind of the modern and traditional detective story. And to do it with the figure of the armchair detective is nothing short of impressive! I always considered the armchair detective to be the genre's tribute to the ability of the human mind to consider and work out complicated problems, or puzzles, purely by reasoning from a comfortable armchair. But they tend to be incredibly plot-driven puzzle stories. There's never a lack of humanity, for better or worse, in the Mom stories. Yes, they're not all classics of their kind, but, from the nine stories collected here, only one truly disappointed ("Mom in the Spring") while another was a little questionable in execution ("Mom Sheds a Tear"). The very best stories, like "Mom Makes a Bet," can stand comparison with their Golden Age counterparts. Add to this Yaffe's personal journey as he struggled to reconcile his ideas about fiction as a adult with his childlike love for the Great Detectives, you have a collection of stories very much worth seeking out. Highly recommended!