Monday, 16 July 2018

The Lost (fictional) Ancestor

Family history researchers spend a lot of time reading. Original records, collections of transcriptions, and indexes all clamour for our attention; or even space on our desks. Can we really find room for fictional genealogy? (Not public Ancestry trees, but tales about researching.)

Yet, there is a burgeoning sub-genre of popular fiction that has been dubbed genealogical mysteries. I thought that the collection on the Goodreads shelf was comprehensive until I came across the enormous list maintained by Jule Cahill Tarr at Julie's Genealogy & History Hub.

Clearly, there was a huge market for these books but I had never been enthused. A few years ago, I dipped into works featuring Jefferson Tayte and Nick Herald without any great passion. When a colleague commented on how much she enjoyed such works, I wondered whether it was the basic proposition or the US background that I had found unappealing. Which is how I came to encounter Morton Farrier.

Nathan Dylan Goodwin describes how he "... came up with the idea of a genealogist who has to solve a crime in the past, using genealogical research methodology, but who ironically knows little about his own past" in his (very) occasional blog The Forensic Genealogist. Since Morton lives in Rye on the Sussex coast, his (predominantly) UK-based research experience might strike that chord his american counterparts had missed.

I selected The Lost Ancestor (the second of a series of (currently) seven titles) which opened with Morton being engaged to locate a "missing" grand-aunt for a rich client with a terminal illness (thereby ensuring that cost was no object for the investigation but time was definitely constrained). But this was not a conventional brick wall despite the apparently prosaic nature of the brief. Of course, Morton is blissfully unaware of the threat he was to face; but if the case were straight-forward, why was the subtitle of the book A Genealogical Crime Mystery?

The structure of the narrative is split between events from 1911 to 1925 interspersed with descriptions of the research task in the present. Which is the source of some unease for me. The (historical) mystery or thriller elements are clearly designed to lead me to leap to conclusions about whodunit that will then be shown to be completely unjustified in the following modern-day segment. But the researcher would never have drawn that incorrect inference (not only because of his professional caution, but) because the eavesdropper lurking behind a door left slightly ajar would have left no documentary record and so is utterly irrelevant (and invisible) to the research process.

There is another element essential to the formula of this genre. The target ancestor was not simply "lost" and there is a living person prepared to go to any lengths to ensure that her true fate is never revealed. This allows Morton to employ some modern gumshoe techniques (spiced with just a little family history expertise) to save himself from a similar fate. This is not a complication that most of us need ever consider in developing a research plan. Although I am not sure how I would react if, while I was desperately seeking the identity of a mystery hitman stalking me, my associate reported: "I've spent the rest of the time digging around the Findmypast website, but nothing so far".

Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed the book enough to finish it in four days. I cannot claim that it ever took me away from real work (on actual family histories) but I was happy to forego my daily (mental-agility) routine of Crosswords and Sudoku for the period.

It is certainly not great literature but there is something appealing about the familiar ordinariness of his securing a locker at the archives, searching the catalogue and requesting a bundle of papers. (Although no staff member of any archive that I frequent would ever be as uncooperative as the dreadful Deidre from "The Keep"!) Do I have sufficient empathy with Morton Farrier to delve into more of the series? Well, I am ambivalent about his next cold case but now that he has learned that Aunt Margaret was actually his birth mother, we need to find his father. Don't we?

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