Suburban Mom, Superspy
Chris Brookmyre reworks 007 for a different demographic.
Sarah Connor, Ripley, Samantha Cain—there are a fair number of pop culture bad ass action hero moms. If you want a narrative expressly written as a fantasy of bad ass action heroism for middle-aged moms, though, you can’t do better than Christopher Brookmyre’s 2005 romp, It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye.
The novel references James Bond films repeatedly, and its plot is a cleverly constructed effervescent bit of spy genre default. Geek extraordinaire Ross Fleming develops a new device that threatens the global arms industry. When word (or more precisely video) of his breakthrough leaks out to nefarious underground sources, he becomes a target on the run. Some want the tech for themselves; some want to kill him and prevent it from ever getting beyond Beta. So his employers hire cold-hearted mercenary Bett and his crack team of appealing ruffians to rescue Ross.
All standard adventure empowerment Ludlum boilerplate. The twist, though, is that Bett decides that the one person he needs to really get the job done is Ross’ 46-year-old Scottish mom Jane Bell Fleming of suburban East Kilbride (the Ian Fleming reference is absolutely intentional.)
Why does Bett want Jane? Jane wonders that herself. There isn’t a very convincing textual reason. But there’s a great meta-reason, which is that middle-aged grandmothers don’t get enough espionage empowerment fantasies of their own, and Brookmyre is determined to change that.
Jane was a punk rock adolescent with a love of James Bond films who hoped to go into engineering. Then boring, Catholic, won’t-wear-a-condom Tom got her pregnant, and she settled in to housewifing, keeping the carpet clean, and carefully driving the speed limit. By the time the novel starts, she’s thoroughly bored with Tom and terrified that life holds nothing more interesting for her than the occasional trip to the indoor playground with her granddaughter. She even takes a job as a cab driver just to get out of the house—then has to give it up when the company wants her to run drugs. Even her mid-life crisis dead-ends back in her at home watching Tom on the couch. “There was no time, and life had little in store but more of the same. Suddenly she was in the third act, the beginning of the end.”
But of course, it’s not the end. When her granddaughter is threatened, she suddenly becomes a force of nature, throwing strollers through car windows and facing down a killer with a pair of scissors. Soon after she shuffles off the old, shapeless clothes and dons combat fatigues or seductive plunging necklines—whatever it takes to protect her family. Grand theft auto, scuba diving, multiple homicides, using feminine wiles to tame hardened killers; she takes to it as if it’s part of the daily routine of changing diapers and grocery shopping.
Brookmyre insists that mothering, from its spiritual highs to its mundane lows, is the perfect practice for facing down a professional with an automatic weapon. “Being a mother instills you with a ruthlessness of mind, a linearity of purpose,” Bett tells her. And he adds, “Don’t you think all those years of playing a one-woman good-cop, bad-cop to get the little buggers to cooperate would make you adept at maintaining a deceit in order to procure what you need?”
Is vacuuming really solid preparation for firearms training? Does the determination to save your child really transform you into a stone-cold killer? There’s reason for skepticism. But then, the thing where James Bond can kill any number of opponents without getting shot himself also strains credulity a bit. And how many amnesiac spies are running around with surprise martial arts skills anyway?
Brookmyre isn’t going for realism. He’s just trying to retool the fantasy for a different demographic. Usually its more or less young, more or less unattached guys who get to improbably imagine themselves as superfit, always prepared, suave sex symbols with a gun in each hand.
Jane Fleming, though, not only gets to travel to exotic locales with handsome men—she gets to do it all while still being herself, that middle-aged mom. The climax of the novel is when she appears before her son, Ross, clad in ninja black, guns blazing, while he looks at her, unaware, and concludes, “this woman, this cyber-assassin, was just the baddest of the bad.” The boring grandma everyone knew is no more, replaced by danger, excitement, sex, power.
Then she takes off her mask, and Ross realizes it’s his mom, who is more than he ever imagined, and also the one person he always knew would save him.
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