No, not the musty, dusty tomes we pore over at the historical society -- I'm talking about genealogy in fiction. Which is completely unrelated to fictional genealogy...cause that would be a whole 'nother diary! (pun intended)

My initial idea here was to do an in depth look at genealogical/family history themes in fiction and literature. But that is a little bit much for an open thread ... the point of which is to get the conversation going, not put everyone to sleep. So I thought I'd narrow my own comments to a few things I've read lately, then open the floor for everyone else to discuss their own favorites.

It isn't really a surprise that genealogy really works as a MacGuffin for a murder mystery story. Patriarchal wills, complicated bloodlines, missing heirs -- heck, we've all researched stuff like this in our own lines! And how many of us have said, this would make a great book... :)

There are actually a number of writers out there who have done whole series of genealogy cozies ... I've read a couple  of different offerings by Patricia Sprinkle; and have made a start on the series by Rhett MacPherson.

My favorite in the cozy genre, so far, is The Famous DAR Murder Mystery by Graham Landrum. The book opens with a group of "little old ladies" (ranging in age from 50 something to 80 something), who are out to mark the grave of a Rev War era soldier but stumble upon the body of a recently murdered man. The story is just delightful, with the intrepid Miss Marples--unsatisfied with how the local police are handling the case, take the investigation into their own hands. They use their collective knowledge of family history and relationships of nearly everyone in the area, as well as finely honed skills in sorting through good and bad evidence. As one of the characters notes, the story "has no dirty language in it and no sex except the time that Harriet and Opal went to the nightclub to investigate the young men who do the striptease." (I'll let you discover what that is about on your own.) But there are recipes! and exclamation points!

Another book, which I found much less delightful but not a total waste of time was Murders and Genealogy in Hennepin County by Patrick Day. An elderly man is murdered, and the motive was a cache of civil war era gold coins that had been hidden under a floorboard in his house for more than 100 years. Interestingly enough, in this book the murder is the MacGuffin, because the real focus is solving a series of genealogical puzzles due to inconsistent and confusing official records of parentage, multiple marriages, and how divorces worked in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century. Also, how the heck did a foot soldier/hardscrabble farmer obtain $1,450 in Civil War gold (with a modern day value estimated at $2 million) and why was it hidden for so many years?

A great premise and some really good examples of breaking through brick walls; however, I would describe the prose as deadly rather than deathless. For example, the protagonists--Anna and Jack--were to meet for a 5:30 date. At 5:00 Anna is in a traffic jam and begins to panic. At 5:40 she decides to call Jack, and she tells him she left at 4:30 but is afraid she might not get there until 6:00; Jack tells her even it takes her until 7:00 he would be there waiting. Anna manages to get there at 5:55. I know I had the Dragnet theme running through my head at this point. Here is a gem that had me laugh hard enough to scare my cats

Jack put his other hand on top of hers and spoke as if the wind had been knocked out of him by a medicine ball thrown into his midsection. "Oh, Anna, I've never loved anyone but you. When you'd call me on the phone or when we met by chance in the Hennepin County Court House over the past two years, my heart rate would go up by twenty points. Are you proposing we start dating again and see what happens?"

"That's exactly what I'm proposing. But I want to be honest with you. I need a genealogy expert like you to help me solve a series of ancestry mysteries. I mischievously thought of you because this would be a way to spend time with you again; nothing else seemed to work to catch your attention. I also want to be honest with you about one other item. If there were not the matter of the genealogical mysteries, I'd still want to be with you tonight and build a relationship with you again."

Nothing more was spoken about genealogy that night.

Nothing naughty happened either, 'cause Anna and Jack were both good Catholics who wouldn't do anything they'd be ashamed to confess.

So, for some brain bleach, my hearty recommendation goes to The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley. Not exactly a murder mystery, there are mysterious murders and a whole lot of family history and research going on, and the prose is marvelous. A young African-American history professor, John, returns to his hometown in rural Pennsylvania to be there at the deathbed of an elderly friend of his father and to hear one last story. John has never come to terms with his father's suicide years before, much less understood any of the complicated family history that shaped their lives.

Through the last story, and acquisition of some key historical documents, John struggles to understand his father's colorful past as a moonshiner and possible murderer (of both revenuers and klansmen) , and the heretofore unknown methodical researcher...for his father has traced the family history from slavery to freedom and work with the Underground Railroad. But what was the reason for his obsession with 13 graves of escaped slaves in the little town of Chaneysville? There is a fabulous weaving in of old stories, layered with new details on each telling, with the techniques of historical research--stripping each fact as fact, and adding back historical and social context as separate layers. Then how does intuition and imagination factor in ... there are some great metaphors with deer hunting: John knows how to track a deer for miles, and put himself into the head of his prey even when the trail disappears, yet he struggles to put himself into the head of his father and g-grandfather to understand their stories to discover the missing trail. I love this book ... I've read it several times and new stuff jumps out at me every time.

Well, now it's your turn ... what genealogical reading treasures have you found. Or even better, if you were to write your own book would it be a cozy mystery or do you prefer some other format?

I intend to check in from time to time this afternoon, but may not be able to comment until later (nook connectivity will be a bit of an issue for me today). So have fun, and behave yourselves until I get back.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Apr 26, 2013 at 09:03 AM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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