In her novels, DeLoach uses what I call interludes in which she becomes an omniscient narrator, providing information that creates suspense and advances the plot. The opening interlude or prologue of Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle, the sixth novel in the series, ends with James’s dog Midnight dropping baby’s skull at his feet.
Having caught our attention, DeLoach returns the narration of Mama’s sleuthing adventures to her daughter Simone, who has come to Otis from Atlanta because Mama is having surgery to remove bunions on her feet. She and Mama immediately get involved in an investigation of murder and abduction. While shopping for groceries, they encounter Birdie Smiley violently shaking Cricket Childs’s baby Morgan. Mama takes the baby away from her and asks what she is doing with Morgan? Birdie replies repeatedly “I ain’t got no business keeping a baby,” Sheriff Abe shows up with Cricket, who accuses Birdie of stealing her baby from her car in “broad daylight.”
Later, Sheriff Abe informs Mama that Cricket has been found dead in her ex-boyfriend Clarence’s apartment and the baby is missing. Mama pursues the case because Cricket, one of her former clients, called her on the day little Morgan was born, and she had gone to the hospital to comfort her and because a beautiful, hopeless baby is missing and might even be dead.
As Mama’s investigation progresses, the suspects pile up. Suspicion immediately falls on Cricket’s boyfriend and the baby’s father Timber, and her ex-boyfriend Clarence Young. Three married men in the community become suspects when Mama learns that Cricket and her friend Sabrina Miley were blackmailing them.
We are not told what the three men did that was so bad that they didn’t want anyone to know. A good guess is that it probably involved sex because literary blackmail in such cases is a convention not just in detective novels but also in novels of other genres. We readers have come to accept such a convention just as we accept literary illnesses.
After Midnight brings home a second baby skull, the search for the source of the skulls lead Mama and Simone to a cemetery behind the trailer home where Cricket’s sister lives. Lucy Bell Childs, Cricket’s deceased grandmother, was for many years the midwife in the community and buried babies who dead in the cemetery. She plays an important function in the story in that as the midwife, she buried two babies, twins, but did not record their names in her records. This information is the main clue that aids Mama in solving Cricket’s murder and the kidnapping of little Morgan.
It is not often that a title of a novel so announces its theme as it does in Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle. The article “the” gives the game away—The empty cradle is Simone’s feelings about motherhood, which are stirred when she sets out to help find little Morgan because she “recalled the beguiling eyes of the beautiful baby, the eyes that had so captivated me and changed my feelings about children and becoming a mother.”
Simone’s feelings about motherhood introduce the subplot. In the other novels, the subplots advance the action of main plots. In Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle the subplot is thematic. It begins when Simone’s pregnant friend Yasmine, who wants sympathy from Simone but gets instead disapproving advice, reveals she is thinking of an abortion. Simone considers “It…ironic that Yasmine’s dilemma and the kidnapped Morgan were what it had taken to spark my maternal flame.”
Simone asks Mama if it is hard raising children. DeLoach, through Mama, replies: “Simone, sweetheart, I believe that the secret to raising children is in doing three things: First, set the example for whatever you want them to be. Second, love them unconditionally. And, third, accept them for their own uniqueness.”
In Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle we learn a little more about the Covington family. Mama has earned her “bachelor’s degree from the University of the State of New York Regents External Degree program,” and James was an officer in the Air Force.
The novel sustains suspense with a good plot and interesting characters, especially the names, but has two large flaws. First, the insertion of the three other suspects rings a little phony because their presence seems to be for the sole reason of having suspects. We are not told what the girls have on the men that would make them pay to keep the girls quiet.
Second the novel ends with a disappointing whimper. The kidnapping furnishes the intrigue to keep the plot moving and leads to the surprise motive for Mama, but the surprise is rather weak for readers.