Interested in some amateur sleuthing? Steve Robinson author of the Jefferson Tayte Genealogical series, talks to Kindle Most Wanted about unearthing the mysteries lurking in your own family tree.
Almost everything we do these days leaves a trail, but that’s really nothing new. For centuries there have been records kept for businesses, records of employment, including apprenticeship records, travel records such as ships’ passenger lists and all manner of journals and other written material, all of which can help put the pieces of the puzzle together. When the idea of a genealogist using family secrets and history to fight crime came to me, I soon discovered, that the business of detecting and solving such cold cases using genealogical methods and resources required the kind of sleuthing that even Sherlock Holmes might have been proud of.
When I began writing my debut book, In the Blood, I already had the murder in mind. The idea started with a National Trust pamphlet that I was given while staying in Cornwall in southwest England. It contained a verse written by a local farmer in 1803 about the often tardy ferrymen who operated the Helford River ferry service at the time. I thought it was such a damning verse that I imagined the farmer in question had been murdered for having written it – such is the mind of a crime fiction author. Here it is:
Of all the mortals here below
Your drunken boatmen are the worst I know;
I’m here detained, tho’ sore against my will,
While these sad fellows sit and drink their fill.
Oh Jove, to my request let this be given,
That these same brethren ne’er see hell nor heaven;
But with old Charon ever tug the oar,
And neither taste nor swallow one drop more.
To forever pull oars with Charon across the River Styx – the Greek mythological boundary between Earth and the Underworld – is damning indeed, although in the end, the motive for the murder turned out to be very different from how I first imagined it. The farmer remained as the victim though, which gave me the setting for my opening murder and the historical time period, but rather than writing a purely historical murder mystery, I wanted to solve it from the present day, so I had to find an alternative way to get to the past crime. That’s how my lead character, American genealogist, Jefferson Tayte, came along, because the idea of a family historian digging up the past seemed entirely logical to me – after all, that’s what genealogists do, isn’t it?
It’s a given that no crime mystery should be easy for the detective to solve, and that also makes genealogy as a means to solve the case ideal, because, as is often typical with the clues to a murder investigation, genealogical records are equally fragmented by nature. The genealogical detective cannot simply find one piece of information and wrap up the case, any more than someone researching their own family history can expect to complete their research by looking at a single archive. It is this need to find and connect the clues that forms the basis of any investigation, and for that reason, genealogy and crime fiction go hand in hand.
Newspaper archives can prove invaluable to anyone researching their family history, and if there’s a serious crime involved it’s almost certain that it will have been reported in the newspapers of the time. And when you consider that many crimes deemed to be minor today were serious enough to be hanged for in the past, it’s clear that newspaper archives can be used to reveal the details of a great many of our ancestors’ misdemeanours.
Old photographs are also a key component of genealogical research. They can prove useful in making connections between people, or in tying someone to a particular place and time – all of which could prove as useful to a murder investigation in the past as it can to police detectives today.
If you haven’t explored the world of family history before, you might think the subject stuffy and boring – something best left to classroom academics in their tweed suits and bow ties. I’d like to dispel that image, because while physical archives can be interesting places to visit – especially when you’re hot on the trail of a distant ancestor whose secret you’re about to bust wide open – nowadays, a good deal of research can be carried out just about anywhere you have an Internet connection. New archives are going online every week, meaning that the data needed to piece your own family history puzzle together has never been more accessible. The world of genealogy is full of intrigue. It’s a place where we all get to play private detective, and who knows what secrets we might uncover for ourselves?
Perhaps you have a family mystery of your own waiting to be solved – a dark secret no one wants to talk about. Whether you’re already into family history, or are planning to have a go, just be aware that some people will go to any lengths to keep the past buried. If your family history turns out to be anything like Jefferson Tayte’s assignments, maybe even murder. But don’t worry, that’s just fiction, isn’t it?