I've recently finished a fascinating book. Not my usual reading fare, but lately I've been enjoying books set in the US and have really enjoyed them. Not ones set in the big cities, but the smaller towns. It's somewhere I can float to in my imagination as I'm reading, especially when the descriptions are of long summer evenings and hot-baked roads. What can I say, I'm a lover of summer sunshine and heat! I like it when words like 'languid' come to mind.
So it was that I bought Poison Branches by Cynthia Raleigh. It's mainly set in Kentucky and from almost the very first scene, where the main character thinks about putting the A/C on in the car, I wiggled my toes at the imagined warmth of the air outside.
But, that's not what this book is about. It's essentially a murder mystery, and it's done well. I didn't know whodunnit, not until the final scenes which become a tense, page-turning race against time, but most of the mystery is solved by a particular type of detective work: genealogy.
Perri Seamore is a keen genealogist and so, it seems were at least one of the murder victims. She's brought onto the case by the local Police Department to see if there are clues in the victim's family tree which might help solve the case.
So it's detective work, but it's also history. Scanning documents - by eye, and with a machine - to search for clues among the lives of real people, most of whom lived a century or more ago is a painstaking but often rewarding task. Whether we do it because we're interested in our own family, or whether we do it because we're writing historical fiction or even nonfiction, the work of the historian, the genealogist, and the police detective all have elements in common.
I've recently been designated keeper of our family records, which include indenture certificates dating to the reign of George III and I'm itching to find out more. I spend a lot of time delving into other people's family trees when I'm writing my fiction and nonfiction. There's added interest when it's personal, and I know of another author, Elizabeth St John, who used a 400-year-old family diary as the basis for her trilogy. (I've read all three books, by the way, and they are superb.)
In Poison Branches, Perri uses her skills and knowledge to find out what the local detective can't, because she has neither the time nor experience. Thus Perri becomes an amateur sleuth and this is Book One of a series, so I expect that Perri will have more such adventures. This book isn't 'just' a murder mystery though; I loved the relationship between Perri and her best friend. The warmth of their friendship and the strength of their bond shone through, from gentle teasing to outright worry once the situation gets a little intense.
I really felt that I couldn't turn the page - or rather, tap the kindle - fast enough when the murderer was revealed. The pacing was superb, the outcome far from obvious and ... well, no spoilers here.
As well as allowing me to enjoy a great story, it also made me stop to think about the satisfying work of the historian, and about how much we can learn from family history generally - for good, or bad.
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