Consider the mystery. It follows a sturdy formula: something, usually a dead body, upsets the normal order of things. Along comes a detective who enters the scene from outside, pokes around, encounters a series of suspects, and solves the crime. In a world in which chaos more than likely rules the day, it’s comforting to believe, at least for a short time, that order can be restored, that evil will be punished, and the world can be made safe. This is the appeal of the mystery. If we don’t require radical departures of narrative style or layers of symbolic meaning, we still want from good genre fiction the same qualities we demand from “literary” works. Formula or not, we want a well-written story populated by interesting characters who confront challenging problems. And we want a good mystery, for above all, what these books offer, whether we try to figure out whodunit or just go along for the ride, is the pleasurable pull of the puzzle.
The mystery novel has a long history going back at least as far as Edgar Allan Poe, but only recently has it featured an impressive number of sleuths who are also working mothers. What follows is a bunch of books featuring gutsy working moms who use their wits to juggle their domestic and professional lives. Though they often wander into places they were never meant to go and encounter real danger in the process, their wit and determination supply both suspense and solution. Not surprisingly, the best of these novels tend to be written by women.
Marianne Macdonald’s Dido Hoare mysteries revolve around a missing rare book or manuscript, but they’re never “bookish” or stuffy. Dido is an antiquarian bookseller and the single mother of a baby boy, Ben, who gradually grows into toddlerhood as the series progresses. She owns her own house in London with her bookshop below and her too-cramped flat upstairs. Though Ben is the product of a short and unsatisfactory marriage, and though Dido doesn’t have the best instincts when it comes to choosing romantic partners, she’s often brilliant and always unstoppable when she’s on the trail of the truth. Her father, a retired Oxford professor, has become her business partner and occasional baby-sitter stand-in, whose comments on her life she tolerates because, as she says, “I like to run my own life. It’s just that doing so fills thirty to forty hours of every day.” In Blood Lies , Dido and Ben take time off to visit her childhood friend, Lizzie, who lives with her husband and his family in a crumbling stately home in a country village. Before too long, Dido is deeply involved in uncovering family secrets that involve two murders and a rare copy of Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, of all things. Ben is with her all the time, acting as both a sounding board (she talks aloud to him about her theories) and a caution, lest things get too risky. He’s a remarkably cooperative toddler who only occasionally crayons the carpet of the house they’re visiting or spills a cup of juice. We forgive Macdonald this, since her writing is strong, since Dido is smart but humanly imperfect, and since the puzzles she confronts are intricate and challenging. It doesn’t hurt that the English setting makes me long for cucumber sandwiches and a mug of hot tea.
It’s an odd fact that most working mom sleuths are single, a condition they’re not always happy with but one that makes their frequent comings and goings a lot easier. Though the writing in Leslie O’Kane’s Molly Masters series isn’t as vigorous as in the other books I’ll mention, Mollie does have a spouse to go along with her two kids, a son and daughter. He’s a companionable partner, too. A cartoonist, Molly runs her own business designing faxed greeting cards in her home office. In Death of a PTA Goddess , on the night of her sixteen -year old daughter’s first date, Molly discovers that the head of the PTA, an obnoxious perfectionist, has been stabbed to death. A suburban busybody who knows everyone in this town where she grew up, Molly sets out to solve the crime. Witty, even smart-alecky, Molly feeds her kids packaged mac n cheese for dinner with Flintstones vitamins for dessert. If her faxes, like her cartoons that pepper the plot are not all that funny, and if the characters are a bit stereotypical, she’s not bad company for a quick and easy read.
More engaging is Jonnie Jacobs’s Kate Austen, a part time high school art teacher in a Bay Area suburb who’s building an art consulting business. She has a husband, but her divorce from him is almost final. She does have a boyfriend, a police detective, and a six-year old daughter. She’s also the guardian of a teen-aged girl, the daughter of a friend of Kate’s who died. Both the kids and her work are woven prominently into the narrative of Murder Among Us , as Kate tries to solve the murder of one of her students. Threatening letters, warnings from her boyfriend to stay off the case, and even the persistent presence of her annoying mother-in-law won’t deter her from catching the culprit – naturally in just the nick of time. The writing here is lively and lucid. Kate is another clever and likeable character just vexed enough to be believable and for a reader to want to see her in action again.
Joanna Brady isn’t divorced; she’s a thirty- year old widow whose police officer husband was killed by a Columbian drug lord’s hit man. By the time of J.A. Jance’s Skeleton Canyon,  Joanna has tracked down his assassin and become the sheriff of Arizona’s Cochise County. Thus, she’s the only one of the protagonists so far to be a legitimate investigator, one with a demanding full time job and decidedly inflexible hours. At the same time she leads an investigation, she must deal with budgets and supervise subordinates, almost all of them men. The difficult shifts from being a mother to a law enforcement officer are poignantly real here when work intrudes upon her time with her ten year old daughter, as Joanna hunts down the killer of a teen-aged girl. She’s forced to move from mother to cop and back again. What makes this book and the Joanna Brady series strong is that the characters, like the place, have histories. Joanna has a complex and very realistic relationship with her own mother that she contemplates when thinking about her connection to her own daughter. Most important, the people she works with respect her; there’s no obligatory sexism here. Joanna simply does her job. Like the writer who created her, she does it well.
Finally, my personal favorites: two books by Gillian Roberts that feature a pair of investigators: Emma Howe, a grouchy middle-aged woman who began her private detective agency years ago when her husband died leaving her to support herself and her two children; and Billie August, a young, pretty, very well-educated divorced single mother who needs a job and convinces the reluctant Emma that she’s smart and tough enough to be her assistant. The scene is Marin County, California. The intricate plots in Time and Trouble and Whatever Doesn’t Kill You  revolve around missing children, scam artists, a weird cult, mental disability and always Billie’s efforts to juggle her job and caring for her little boy. But what really makes these books come alive is the relationship between Emma and Billie. Emma is an irascible boss whom Billie can almost never please. Yet Billie refuses to bow down, instead following her gut and her head, even defying Emma and proving her wrong. These books are far and away the most engagingly literate and, yes, entertaining of the bunch. I wish there were more of them.
So here’s the point: light reading needn’t insult our intelligence. On the contrary, it can tease and engage our minds at the same time that it takes us away from the pressures of our own chaotic lives. Like Mommy Track’d itself, the mystery novel stakes its claim by (temporarily, at least) bringing order to chaos.
Jo Keroes received her PhD from Stanford University and was a Professor of English at San Francisco State University for more than 25 years. She is the author of Tales Out of School, Images of Teachers in Film and Fiction,  and the mother of 2 daughters, including Amy Keroes, Founder & CEO of MommyTrack'd.com.