17 October 2014

Book: The Lost Ancestor

Something a little different ...
The Lost Ancestor. By Nathan Dylan Goodwin. http://www.nathangoodwin.co.uk/, 2014.

Since I regularly critique mystery and crime fiction novels, I agreed to review―with a tiny bit of apprehension―Nathan Goodwin's The Lost Ancestor after receiving his direct marketing appeal.

I'm aware that the occasional genealogical colleague ventures into writing mystery fiction starring a genealogist as the detective. While I've not sought out examples, the few I've seen were not what I considered successful. No doubt most of us can come up with numerous juicy plot ideas from exposure to myriad ancestral problems that we've been asked to solve over the course of a career. But not only does a genealogist as protagonist need adequate knowledge of the subject and credible work habits; the novel itself requires good writing and structure. Readers with historical and genealogical experience also look for value-added, telling details.
  
Goodwin's novel is a dilly that sucked me right in (it's the second in a planned series after Hiding the Past). That's not an easy thing to do with my predilection for Scottish noir and Swedish perverse. Based in East Sussex, England, forensic genealogist Morton Farrier gets a dream job: find out what happened to the missing sister of an ancestor one hundred years ago. Mary Mercer was learning the ropes as third housemaid in an upper-class mansion (Downton Abbey fans will love the minutiae of Edwardian service life); she suddenly disappeared, leaving a hole in a family tree.

Straightforward assignment? Where would you look for her?

Family historians will recognize many of the sources Morton uses but some may surprise you. You might say certain unusual documents coincide rather conveniently to drive the plot, but Goodwin skillfully builds credibility. Check out Morton's elaborate mindmapping! Identity is only one issue as a strange, twisting scenario unfolds. 

I doubt that the research elements are intrusive for a non-genealogist reader, quite the contrary. Even better is how the author carefully paralleled Morton's progress with Mary's own story, a challenging device handled admirably. Dialogue and characters integrate naturally―a pet peeve of mine when it fails―with just the right touch of our hero's domestic life and a sense of his own family problems. There's more: someone is prepared to kill Morton to stop his meddling research.

Morton's methodology can scarcely be faulted although a few quibbles arise in sources or editing. A reference is made to a street address in Ontario as if Ontario (a province over four times the size of Great Britain) were a town. A passport was unnecessary for a British citizen to travel to Canada (but let's not kvetch on a minor point). Overly-long paragraphs can be a drag. Nevertheless, The Lost Ancestor is a winner in my books ... more, please!

Goodwin has found an engaging, lively "voice" in Morton Farrier. See if you agree with me. I'd love to receive some comments here.

[The Lost Ancestor was self-published on CreateSpace, an Amazon "independent publishing" unit. Paperback copies can be ordered on Goodwin's website; the Kindle version is currently only available in the UK and the US.]

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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