When I grew up, ninety-nine percent of the detective stories I read featured men as the protagonists. But as I finished a novel and returned to my everyday life, it was evident that the ultimate detective was standing in the kitchen, cooking dinner. My mother was the best detective I ever knew. She could make Sherlock Holmes get down on his knees and wipe the floor if she only had the time. Of course, she didn’t have the time, since she was a woman, trying to balance a career and a family.
Below is a list of features the top detectives and Jewish mothers have in common.
Intuition. Detective fiction is full of somewhat mystical moments, in which the detective senses that there’s something wrong. He smells something, or even better — he “feels it in his body” when something “is just not right”. Well, mothers do it all the time, just without applause. They know when you’re down (even when you try to hide it) and they have a knack for knowing when you’d rather just let something be (and then they’ll be sure to bring it up). Detectives use their intuition to solve murder mysteries. Mothers use their intuition to solve the biggest mysteries in our lives — our own children.
Razor-sharp memory. Detectives pay attention to the smallest details. So do moms. My best friend is a mother of three young boys. She knows their daily routine by heart. In fact, she is their daily routine: which class is when and where, tomorrows’ homework, next weeks’ assignment, which one of the boys hates peanut butter in his sandwich, which one refuses to go to school without peanut butter in his sandwich, who loves to listen to which music, who hit who, and what exactly was the punishment. In detective fiction, the small details build upon each other to create the big picture. In motherhood, the small details illuminate who these children are and their personhood as it develops.
Detectives use their intuition to solve murder mysteries. Mothers use their intuition to solve the biggest mysteries in our lives — our own children.
Tenacity. The detective’s quest for knowledge is often brutal. No matter how many obstacles he encounters on his way, a true detective never gives up. Whoever listened to a typical dinner-time conversation about college, knows mothers can be just as tenacious as a hard-boiled detective after two bottles of whisky.
Blind Spots. Irony is a key element in detective fiction. The investigator is known for his sharp eye and penetrating gaze, yet there’s something he’s bound to miss. Not because he’s a bad detective, but rather because he is human. Because we all want to know the truth just as much as we want to avoid it. Mothers look at their children all the time. They want to know everything. But do they really? Could it be that we prefer to remain blind to certain elements in our child’s character?
As a mother, it’s sometimes shocking to realize that you can spend so much time with your kids and still know nothing about what’s going on inside their mind. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own family.
Three years ago, I told my mother what my next novel was going to be about. I hate talking about books before they’re done, but this time I had no other choice. My mother was dying of cancer, and we both knew she wouldn’t be around for publication. My new novel, The Wolf Hunt, tells the story of a mother who starts to suspect that her child was involved in the death of his classmate. She becomes a detective of a sort, and the mystery she is trying to solve is her own child. When I told that to my mom, she smiled and said that perhaps every mother has a detective in her. Every mother looks at her child as if they are a riddle that she is trying to solve.
I wrote this essay in my mother’s memory, the greatest detective I’ll ever know.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of The Liar and Waking Lions, which won the JQ-Wingate Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and has been published in seventeen countries. She is a clinical psychologist, has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. She won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut.