The Worst Mothers in Fiction and Film

chokeMother’s Day is upon us—what better time to look at The Worst Mothers of Crime Fiction? If you’d like to get all passive-aggressive in your Mother’s Day gift-giving this year, consider the following books and DVDs:

1. The Grifters, by Jim Thompson
Lilly Dillon, mother to protagonist Roy, is a career criminal, a control freak, and possibly the worst mother ever depicted in prose. She’s done a baaaad number on her son and manipulated every aspect of his life all the way down to his love affairs. The final pages of Thompson’s twisted tale will terrify you. Want to up the ick factor? Throw in the film by Stephen Frears, and make an Anjelica Huston bad-mommy double-feature out of this one and Clark Gregg’s Choke, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Now, that’s just completely uncalled for.

2. Gone, Baby, Gone, by Dennis Lehane
Helene McCready is a walking billboard for reproductive wrongs—so self-involved and neglectful of her child that when her daughter is kidnapped, well, you kinda hope the kid has gone to a better place than home.

3. Escape, by Perihan Magden
The other Bambi’s mother in Magden’s claustrophobia-inducing thriller is just the opposite of Helene McCread— she will absolutely smother you with over-protectiveness. Bad parenting? Absolutely, but the lengths she’ll go to to keep her daughter in a bubble go way beyond poor parenting, don’t even slow down at dangerously obsessive, and crash through the arrival gate at full-blown psychotic.

A few more momma-damage books to consider: The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon; Psycho, by Robert Bloch, The Death of Sweet Mister, by Daniel Woodrell; A Garden of Sand, by Earl Thompson; Small Sacrifices, by Ann Rule; and American Rose, by Karen Abbott.

Mom’s not a reader? How about some moving pictures?

4. The Sopranos
Nancy Marchand was the actress who made Livia Soprano such a force of ill-nature—so miserable, and so determined to make everybody else miserable, too. I’ve often wondered where the show would have gone if Marchand hadn’t died between filming the second and third seasons. One of the best episodes of the series finds the family at her memorial, unable to fake their way through some pleasant memories. Oh, and she put a hit out on her own son.

5. Animal Kingdom
Jacki Weaver’s turn as Smurf, the matriarch of a close-knit family of thieves, is electrifying from the get-go, and nothing short of shiver-inducing by the end. Her diminutive stature, big blue eyes, and sweet-sweety voice are wielded so expertly, and so ruthlessly. Watch all those tough, dangerous guys swagger around the scene throwing off scary vibes, then observe Smurf tame each in turn with a kiss on the mouth, and dole out demonic orders to her now docile minions. Yes, Lord Vader.

6. The Manchurian Candidate
Based on the book by Richard Condon, the John Frankenheimer film has probably eclipsed the source material in pop culture, and a good deal of the credit for that achievement goes to Angela Lansbury, who is so doggone creepy and sinister and eeeeeeevil as Eleanor Shaw Iselin. She’s the puppet master behind a seriously sinister plot: her voice comes out of her politician husband’s mouth, while her hands inappropriately operate her War-Hero son’s every move. Highly recommended for fans of Murder She Wrote.

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