Genealogical Cozies, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan's websiteBack in May, I wrote about a genealogical mystery I had read.  I hadn’t even realized that this genre was out there, so I committed myself to finding and devouring more such books.  Now it’s time to report back on a couple.  But first, I’d like to take a brief detour for a definition.

What’s a Cozy?
Once again, I find it necessary to confess my ignorance.  Until I went on this recent reading binge, I didn’t know what a cozy was.  But time and time again, as I read reviews, I kept seeing the word “cozy.”  On the off-chance that some of you might share this same knowledge gap, I thought it might be helpful to explain.

According to mystery-writer Stephen D. Rogers, “A cozy is a mystery which includes a bloodless crime and contains very little violence, sex, or coarse language.  By the end of the story, the criminal is punished and order is restored to the community.”

Ah, OK.  Well, that certainly fits.  If you venture into the world of genealogical mysteries, you’ll find that they’re almost all cozies — pleasant reads that you can absorb in one couch-lounging session.  Of course, I can’t promise that the genealogist in you won’t be frustrated by the detective’s choice of tactic (thoughts such as, “Don’t waste your time doing that — the answer you need is in the cemetery!” frequently crossed my mind), but overall, these are relaxing escapes.

In Sheep’s Clothing
Author Rett MacPherson’s mystery series is classic cozy all the way.  Her books feature genealogist and accidental detective Torie O’Shea, a stick-your-nose-in-other-people’s-business kind of character.  In this case, she’s lured out of state by an aunt to figure out what became of a young Swedish woman who wrote a diary back in the 1850s. 

Luckily for Torie, she’s surrounded by people with unending patience, like her wheelchair-bound mother who watches her kids while she’s gone, and her husband – a fellow everyone else feels sorry for.  In fact, she’s so flawed that I was somewhat resistant to accepting her at first – until it dawned on me that I share many of her flaws.  Heaven knows, my husband has spent many patient hours tramping through cemeteries and listening to me noodling out loud, trying to crack a case.  Some of you may even recall that I road-tested him when we were dating by dragging him to a morgue in Portland, Oregon.  So it probably won’t surprise you that I ultimately decided that Torie’s many flaws are charming!

As to the genealogical aspects, MacPherson clearly knows her stuff.  True, it seems a little odd that Torie hardly ever hits in the Internet.  She’ll take a trip to a library for a census record that she could look up online in a minute or two.  But it certainly makes the story juicier when she has a run-in along the way!  Computer screens just don’t make for good conflict, so I found myself willing to go along when she takes a less-than-efficient approach.

And if you’re a true genealogist, you’ll find yourself genuinely caring about the Swedish girl and wanting to solve the mystery as much as Torie.  In fact, if you’re an avid genie, you’ll spot some of the clues along the way before Torie elaborates on them.  So you’ve got a chance to flex those sleuthing muscles and feel just slightly superior.

My verdict?  Well, let’s put it this way: I plan on ordering more of MacPherson’s books.  And if you check out the comments that were posted after my first article, you’ll see that I’m not the only one who enjoys these light-hearted romps.

Judgment of the Grave
Sarah Stewart Taylor specializes in slightly less cozy cozies.  In her books, we follow Sweeney St. George, a gravestone expert and Harvard art history professor.  As you might expect from her occupation, Sweeney’s no lightweight, but she still has her share of imperfections – mostly having to do with her personal relationships.

If Judgment of the Grave is any indication, Taylor’s tales are somewhat darker.  There’s a little more blood and one of the main characters in this book is a seriously ill child.  But what really sets it apart is how carefully it’s been researched.  This particular book, for instance, centers on current-day deaths with ties to the American Revolution – and the reader actually learns something along the way.

As you might expect, Sweeney’s mystery-solving approach is less genealogical than Torie’s.  Sweeney is more apt to consult with another expert or academic than Torie, but she still spends countless hours in cemeteries, so that makes her one of us.

I was also taken with Taylor’s writing style.  She somehow manages to educate and entertain without getting preachy or teachy.  So yes, her other books will also be on my shopping list.

What Do You Think?
I’d like to invite you to take advantage of the ability to post comments to this article.  I found the remarks from the last one very interesting.  In fact, they somewhat guided my reading selections this time out.  If you’ve read any genealogical mysteries – or any sort of book with a strong genealogical theme (other than a straightforward how-to) – I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d take a moment to share your views.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through,, and

Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
— Roots in the Boot
(July 15, 2006, Pittsburgh, PA)
— Tidewater Genealogical Society
(August 5, 2006, Newport News, VA)
— Joint Genealogical Speakers Guild and International Society of Family History Writers and Editors luncheon at the FGS conference
(September 2, 2006 – Boston, MA)
— David Ackerman Descendants 1662
(October 21, 2006 – Ramapo, NJ)
— 2006 Genealogy Conference and Cruise (hosted by Wholly Genes Software)
(November 11-18, 2006 – Mexican Riviera)

Details and links to upcoming events


9 thoughts on “Genealogical Cozies, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. A list of books in which genealogy or genealogists [usually] play a part in the plot was compiled primarily by the members of the Librarians Serving Genealogists e-list. Many of the included titles are mysteries. The list has not been updated since 14 January 2004 but includes links to so that you can read summaries and reviews of the works, most of which should be available at your library or through inter-library loan.

    See the list at:

  2. While not quite fitting Megan’s definition of a cozy, All The Dirty Cowards by Deborah Adams ( Copyright 2000, Silver Dagger Mysteries) is quite the genealogical thriller. The setting is Jesus Creek, TN where the matriarch of a family with deep roots in the community has given up the ghost. Mrs. Vickers’ children and heirs, who are aging themselves, are not interested in retaining possession of their mother’s property; thus the entire estate has been put up for auction. The story opens on the day of the auction where Delia Cannon,Jesus Creek native and ever the amateur genealogist, has joined her friends and neighbors at the estate sale in hopes of purchasing at least some small piece of local history. All the locals are perplexed by the presence of a mysterious stranger who at the end of the day places the winning bid on the bulk of the estate including the house and grounds which are in need of considerable renovations. Delia is delighted by her purchase of an old trunk which she soon discovers contains an old journal written in the 1800’s by the first Vickers family ancestor to settle in Jesus Creek.

    The new owner of the Vickers property, who answers all inquiries in such a way as to reveal nothing of his personal history, immediately begins demolition of outbuildings with plans to establish a nice garden. Excavation, however, unearths two skeletons of unknown age and origin. Delia, never one to let a mystery go unsolved, then sets out to uncover the truth, much to the chagrin of someone who would prefer to leave family skeletons in the closet so to speak.

    The detailing of Delia’s investigative process is interspersed with exerpts from the old Vickers journal which provide narrative, first-hand descriptions of events as they occurred many years before. Unfortunately for Delia, a key section of Mr. Vickers’ diary is missing. Not to be deterred, Delia perseveres only to uncover fascinating twists and turns in the Vickers family history and in the history of Jesus Creek. Mayhem and murder , both old and new , come together to make a most intriguing read with a very surprising finale.

    Delia the sleuth uses primarily interviews and internet research , and she will keep you turning page after page to see what happens/happened next.

  3. Pale As The Dead by Fiona Mountain ( Copyright 2002, St. Martin’s Press)
    Natasha Blake , a twenty-eight year old professional genealogist, is contacted by a girl named Bethany about the possibility of researching her family history. Bethany instructs Natasha to meet her for an initial interview at a secluded spot on the river. Despite concerns for her safety , Natasha arrives at the appointed time and place to find Bethany wearing a long flowing dress, holding a beautiful bouquet, and floating peacefully in the frigid river. The scene is quite ominous, but Natasha soon realizes that Bethany is simply re-enacting a famous Pre-Raphaelite painting called Ophelia so her photographer boyfriend can capture the scene for his upcoming exhibition. Bethany proceeds to tell Natasha that she feels her family is cursed and wants to know who her ancestors are and why they have suffered so much tragedy. Before actually commissioning Natasha to proceed in researching her family history, Bethany disappears. So it is actually Bethany’s boyfriend who eventually hires Natasha to help locate his missing love.

    Natasha suspects the boyfriend’s motives and even wonders if he’s trying to cover something up. Nevertheless , she agrees to take on the task utitlizing every skill and resource at her disposal. The book reveals lots of interesting art history information. The gist of the book is about how history does in fact repeat itself. The power of suggestion can cause us to live our lives in such a way as to make an expected fate actually come to past. In other words, Bethany believed her family was cursed. Her belief in the curse has perhaps allowed the curse to befall her as well. Is Bethany still alive or already dead? Does a family curse have anything to do with her disappearance? Or is it something else?
    Another compelling mystery and one that Megan would definitely enjoy as it illustrates the benefit of genetealogy in solving famiy history riddles.

  4. O’ Artful Death is the first of Sarah Stewart Taylor’s novels to feature art history professor Sweeney St. George, whose specialty is studying how the customs of death and mourning have evolved over time. Sweeney’s best friend Toby invites her to spend Christmas vacation with him at the home of relatives in his hometown of Byzantium, Vermont which used to be a wild and crazy artist colony in the mid to late 1800’s. Sweeney declines the offer but is convinced to go when Toby shows her a photograph of a most unusual tombstone that is located in one of the old family cemeteries in Byzantium. The stone is a beautifully sculpted figure of the body of the deceased draped gracefully in a boat as if she were crossing the River Jordan. The deceased was named Mary Denholm , and she died in the early 1890’s. Sweeney recognizes this most unique gravestone as very atypical for the date of death in question . She is further perplexed that no one seems to know the name of the sculptor . Before departing for Vermont, Sweeney makes phone contact with the Denhom family descendant who currently owns the property where the grave is located. This descendant, Ruth Kimball , is more than willing to tell Sweeney all she knows about the family history and Mary Denholm’s grave. However, before Sweeney arrives in Vermont, Ruth Kimball is murdered. Now there are two mysteries. Who was Mary Denholm and what was the story surrounding her death, and did someone kill Ruth Kimball to prevent her from talking?

    Sweeney arrives for Christmas vacation in Byzantium very anxious to start sorting out the mystery of Mary Denholm’s death . If she can just find out who made Mary’s tombstone that will probably go a long way toward shedding some light on how Mary died . Was it natural causes, accident, murder? Amid all the lavish and elaborate Christmas parties, Sweeney begins interviewing neighbors, visiting the local historical society and consulting with local historians to try to crack this case. Before long a second older lady turns up dead. Now the count is two dead bodies in as many weeks, both seemingly related to Sweeney’s interest in Mary Denholm’s grave marker.

    This book is quite good at holding the reader’s attention. It delves into art history – specifically Pre-Raphaelite tradition- and as such has much in common with the previously-mentioned Pale As The Dead by Fiona Mountain. Sweeney discovers a most unexpected twist in the story of Mary Denholm- one that may have personal repercussions for Sweeney herself.

  5. Mansions Of The Dead is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s second Sweeney St. George novel. Sweeney is teaching a class on death and mourning customs. One of her students, Brad Putnam, visits her in the office and seems to want to tell her something but never quite gets up the courage to spit out what he’s trying to say. Before she gets another chance to talk to Brad, he is found dead in his apartment in a most bizarre scene. Brad’s body is dressed in a plastic bag over his head and a couple pieces of Victorian-era mourning jewelry that is made from the hair of someone who died long ago. What does this jewelry have to do with Brad ? Why did the killer put it on him? Whose hair was it made from ? Who killed Brad and why? Was someone trying to keep him from telling a deep, dark secret ?

    Sweeney must identify the person who originally made these pieces of jewelry and whose hair they were made of . She wonders if DNA testing can identify the hair. She studies the history of Brad Putnam’s family and in the process visits cemeteries and archives in Boston and in Newport, R.I. Her findings threaten the fortune of the Putnam family, and any number of people may have been willing to kill even one of their own to keep ancient history dead and buried.

  6. I am looking forward to the Fiona Mountain books and have ordered them for my library. I went back to my book notebook and found more genealogy mysteries (beyond those listed with your previous posting) and want to share them:
    “True Believers” Linda Dorrell-a story more religous than some but stressing the importance of family and understanding your past.
    “Genealogy of Murder” Lee Martin. Solving the case of an “extra” body at a local forensic body farm, Deb Ralston has to work with (actually against) the “Daughters of the American Flag” to solve the mystery and the kidnapping of her friend.
    “Killing Cousins” Gene Stratton. Mort Sinclair helps solve a series of murders through genealogy.
    Two Agatha Christie books have a genealogy twist: “The Clocks” and ” Elephants Can Remember”.
    Some of these books are out of print but I was able to get them through library loan when necessary.
    Everyone, please keep sharing!!!

  7. Although they are truly not cozies but rather police proceedurals, I highly recommend ALL of the Lee Martin books involving Deb Ralston. Most of them have at least a minor portion of genealogical interest and one “Inherited murder” takes place in Salt Lake City at recognizable venues and includes some wonderful genealogical twists. Deb Ralston becomes a Mormon convert about half way through the series.

  8. I enjoy these book reviews and hope you will continue to do them. I live in the area where Rett McPherson’s books are set and that makes them more interesting—even though she gets her streets and directions wrong sometimes. I’ve read several of them and found her main character rude and extremely impulsive, but you have made me rethink those “flaws”–recognizing my own tendency to doggedly follow any lead in my own research. Thanks, Jackie

  9. Is a “tea” cozy spelled the same way?
    All this and are we talking about the same cozy?
    Anyway never thought of mystery books/novels with a genealogical slant. I am going to look into this as I have lost my favorite mystery write some years ago (Lawrence Saunders i.e. The Tenth Commandment, The First Deadly Sin and other Sin novels).
    Can anyone tell me if these books are true to real or valid genealogical research so as not to send some novice like me onto a “bent” or path that probably does not net research gain?
    PS I have not read all the entries but will goback and read them later today. Look out Amazon here I come.
    Thanks, Diane

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