Curl Up with a Genealogical Mystery, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Recently, I’ve been frustrated by what seems to be an emerging trend–non-genealogists getting their own familLineages and Lies, by Jimmy Foxy histories published as mainstream books in spite of mediocre research.  The most recent I’ve come across presents the discovery of a census record from 1880 as a major find.  This “revelation” is given to the author by an archives since she was unable to find it because the entry was indexed under an unexpected spelling.  I was able to locate the same record on in about 45 seconds, and if I were to give you the names, you could do the same.

I know not to judge a book by its cover and I suppose I should judge it more by its content than the research behind it, but as both a genealogist and writer, I can’t help but consider both aspects.  I’d like to see well-researched books such as Only a Few Bones: A True Account of the Rolling Fork Tragedy & Its Aftermath (by John Philip Colletta) and Isle of Canes (by Elizabeth Shown Mills) get a fraction of the attention that some of these other books receive.  Where are all the genealogically-based best-sellers?

It was during an effort to investigate this matter that I managed to derail myself with a book-buying binge.  I innocently went online looking for one book, saw a link to a similar book, allowed myself to be distracted by yet another link – and well, came up for air about an hour later.  Some of you will recognize yourself in my behavior.

At any rate, my binges always have a theme, and this time it was genealogical mysteries.  Before the damage was done, I had ordered half a dozen books.  I have to admit that I’m writing prematurely because I’ve only read one of them – the other five having just arrived yesterday.  But it seems a good topic for discussion, so I thought I’d share my initial reactions and see what others have to say.

The one book that I’ve read caught my attention (in spite of being self-published – still a bit of a red-flag to me) because it was clear the writer was actually a genealogist.  Lineages and Lies, by Jimmy Fox wasn’t the best mystery I’ve read, but it wasn’t a bad little diversion either. 

You have to be willing to take a flight of fancy.  For instance, I don’t know too many gorgeous twenty-somethings hankering after middle-aged, professional genealogists (as much as we might like to imagine such possibilities).  And having never belonged to any lineage society (my family tree consisting mostly of the riff-raff earlier arrivals would have liked to keep out!), I’m not in a good position to evaluate the portrayal of the featured (and fictional) society.  But I suspect that those who actually manage such societies might be amused by the riches and state-of-the-art facilities described in the book.  Having said that, much of the book does ring true to genealogists.

Kathleen Hinckley, who’s Executive Director of the Association of Professional Genealogists as well as a P.I., wrote a review for the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and had this to say about one of Jimmy Fox’s other books:

“Private detectives and police investigators are often characterized as shady individuals in mysteries, but Jimmy Fox took a giant leap from that standard when he developed the character of ‘Nick Herald, Ph.D., CG.’ Herald’s unethical behavior is so routine throughout Deadly Pedigree as to make one wonder whether the author is purposefully mocking the field.  Genealogists are known for their use of cemetery records to solve genealogical mysteries, but Nick Herald digs too deeply when he opens a casket to remove a sealed jar with documents he needs to solve his case . . .  Fox demonstrates an excellent understanding of the players in the genealogical field.  He sprinkles his story with references to the American Society of Genealogists, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and the Family History Library.  He even portrays Herald as a reader of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.  He describes census records correctly and touts the value of city directories, deeds, military files, passenger arrival manifests, tax rolls, and vital records.”

A classic mixed-review if ever there was one!  Yes, the writer takes liberties, but writers of fiction are permitted to do so.  And I, for one, was grateful to see evidence of a writer who had actually immersed himself in the world of genealogy.  Whatever the shortcomings of this book might be, the author knows a census record from a city directory! 

So what do you think?  Use the comments feature here to share your reactions with the rest of us.  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

By the way, in case you’d care to join me, next on my reading list are books by Sarah Stewart Taylor, Rett MacPherson, and Fiona Mountain. 

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
    Tidewater Genealogical Society
    (May 20, 2006, Newport News, VA)
  • Oaklyn Memorial Library
    (May 23, 2006, Oaklyn, NJ)
  • Roots in the Boot
    (July 15, 2006, Pittsburgh, PA)

Details and links to upcoming events

17 thoughts on “Curl Up with a Genealogical Mystery, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. Megan,

    Thanks for the leads for these types of books.

    I remember reading a book called “Family” by Ian Frazier some time ago, but it wasn’t a mystery – just a story that fleshedo ut several generations.

    Cheers — Randy

  2. Megan
    I have read all of Mr. Fox’s books I liked them . WE have them in our local Library.

  3. I read my first Rett MacPherson book yesterday. I have to say it was a good mystery. Not too heavy on the genealogy, but enough references in there for familiarity. The book was entitled A Misty Mourning. I have several others that I’m waiting on through ILL.

  4. Killing Cousins and Cornish Conundrum by Gene Stratton are both excellent genealogical novels. This is the same Gene Stratton who has written several scholarly genealogical books. He used to have a web site saying there were more mysteries to come — all situated in places he had traveled. But I can no longer find the site or any new books.

    I have read most of the Rett MacPherson books which are cute, clever and a quick-read. I love Torie’s relationship with her mother’s new husband, Colin, the sheriff.

  5. I think this section is great, I check it nearly every day, and have found some great suggestions for books! I already read “Isle Of Canes”, and really enjoyed it.

  6. I’m glad Sharon mentioned Killing Cousins. It is one of my favorites. I’ll have to look for the other one. I also have Isle of Canes. I have yet to read it though.

  7. Dear Megan-
    Last year, as a program for my DAR chapter, I read and talked about mysteries with a genealogical twist. Some were great and others so-so, but all were fun. Many books are out of print, but I used the library system to find most of them. To find books I went on line, first to Cyndi’slist (books) and then followed links all over the place.
    Some titles (not in order of like or dislike, but rather what I bought and have vs what I called in from the library) Anne George “Murder Runs in the Family”; Jimmy Fox “Deadly Pedigree” & “Lineages & Lies”, & James G. Brown “A Promise to the Past”.
    I really enjoyed Phillip Colleta’s book as well and was especially fond of the Graham Landrum’s DAR myster-the actual title eludes. However, I am happy to provide more if wanted.
    I also read mysteries centered around archealogy (found the same way). Reading in genres is fun and leads one to explore a hobby in greater depth as well as looking at the books and saying “boy, have you got that wrong -or right” in some cases!
    Happy reading.

  8. Sorry, left two books off the my list: Mary Daheim “major vices” and Sharon McCrumb “The Songcatcher”. This last one is very good.

  9. Pingback: 24-7 Family History Circle » Genealogical Cozies, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  10. I really like the Rett MacPherson books…..its best to start with the first one because they continue the basic story line.

  11. Hi Megan,
    One of my favorite mysteries with a genealogical twist is “Touch Not the Cat” by Mary Stewart. Thanks for all of the suggestions.

  12. Here’s another genealogically based novel! “The Stone Diaries” by Carole Shields, published in 1995 by Penguin Books. She does such a good job, you want to write the author to see if this is really fiction, or possibly truth. Unfortunately, she is recently deceased, so we will never know.

  13. I read a lot of genealogy magazines but no books. I am searching for a book called “Coltons of Longmeadow, MA.” I do not know who wrote it. A cousin of mine told me about it. She also told me about a book called “The Colton Letters”. Have not been able to find that book either. I do have the “Colton Book” published in 1912. My son got that for my Christmas 2004. It has been a blessing.
    Thanks for any help you can give me. I also want you to know I really enjoy your comments. Keep up the good work.
    Jean Henry

  14. Sharyn McCrumb is already on the list for Song Catcher, but I loved the Ballad of Frankie Silver, based on the story of the first woman in the state of North Carolina to be hanged for murder. Real names are used for many of the incidental characters. Your ancestor might make an appearance!

  15. For some cozy nights with the hot chocolate, check out the series of geneological mysteries written by Rett MacPherson. Setting outside of St. Louis most of the time. Do read in sequence as stories are sequential. Her main character has a real personality with lots of personal flaws, a loving husband, kids, etc. Her latest book is due out within a month or so. Problem is: Rett cannot write fast enough to keep me in stories.

  16. I do enjoy Rett MacPherson books. However, I just read a new one that I really liked. It is ‘Death On The Family Tree by Patricia Sprinkle. It is a new book and I just got it through the Mystery Book Club. I hope it is the first of many.

  17. Hi all – I just found this blog. I think it’s great. I’m currently working on the first of a new mystery series that will have a main character who’s an amateur genealogist (like me!). The stories will be set in a small ficititous town in Tennessee. I just have to keep my fingers crossed that a publisher will like my story and want to buy it along with the sequels!

    My first novel was published last month. It’s a Southern Gothic historical. Not a mystery, but I did base the entire book on some family history research I’d done. Check out my website for the back story and if you think it sounds interesting, pick up a copy.

    Renee Russell

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