reviewed by Gail Byrd
The subject of genealogy can’t really be entertaining and suspenseful, can it? That depends on who’s doing the writing and why the book is delving into genealogy in the first place. While detailed lists of names and places might be primarily of interest to the families involved, in the hands of a skilled mystery writer, with a little bit of artistic license to help the story come alive, you can end up with a book that appeals to a wide range of readers.
Such is the case for Fatal Family Ties, by S. C. Perkins; the third in the Ancestry Detective mystery series featuring genealogist Lucy Lancaster. In this novel, Lucy is approached by Camilla, a former colleague, who wants her to do some research. It seems a reporter has written a scathing article about Camilla and one of her ancestors who served in the Confederate Army. Or did he? The reporter has uncovered documents which support the idea he was a deserter who built the rest of his life on a lie and, at least once, that lie was at the expense of an entire family.
There are two issues that currently need to be investigated. One is the life of Charles Braithweight, Camilla’s great great (to the fourth) grandfather. Her family is the epitome of old Texas money, and their reputation is one of service and belief in the worth of all human beings. Much of that began with Charles, who saw war as a horrendous occurrence and depicted much of it in his battlefield artwork, some of which has been donated to museums by the family. All of that is now in jeopardy if the article purporting him to be a deserter instead of the soldier history has always believed him to be is proved to be accurate. Camilla hires Lucy to investigate in the hopes of proving the article wrong.
Early in their discussion, Camilla takes Lucy by her uncle Charlie’s house where there is a painting supposedly completed by Civil War Era Charles depicting a battle during the war. Initially, it looks like a crude, childish drawing worth nothing. However, an accident to one corner has revealed there is an intricate painting underneath which, if authenticated, may prove quite valuable. It’s value has the potential of being exponentially increased if it can be combined with the two other panels Charles originally painted to create a triptych. Camilla has one of the panels, but the whereabouts of the third are unknown.
Before the genealogy research can begin in earnest, Charlie is found dead and his panel stolen. Lucy’s boyfriend, an FBI agent, sees the position of the body and immediately suspects Charlie was murdered. He calls the police who come to investigate and conclude he is correct. While the detective in charge excludes Lucy from most of the investigation he does ask her to investigate the genealogical aspects of the family. Lucy also is intrigued by the painting and extends her investigation into trying to determine the authenticity of the one remaining panel and perhaps track down the panel that disappeared when it was sent to a third branch of the family several generations ago.
As Lucy gets deeper into her investigation, it appears there is more to the missing artwork than trying to prove it was actually created by Charles during the war. The question is why would anyone steal the work and why kill Charlie? Was it for the artwork or something else? Was his neighbor, Elaine, involved somehow in his death? What does any of this have to do with the family’s ancestry? Lucy is determined to pull all the strings together and find out.
There are some secondary characters who are recurring in the series who make a brief appearance here including Lucy’s office mates, her “adopted” uncle Flaco who owns a well renowned taqueria, and Lucy’s grandfather as well as NPH, Neil Patrick Housecat; and Freddie, Lucy’s apartment manager who makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the book. Ben, Lucy’s boyfriend, is the main secondary character, having just completed an undercover assignment and taking some time to spend with Lucy. Together they investigate and bring a sense of logic to the proceedings.
The ending is satisfying, even though it may be easy for many readers to figure out who is responsible for Charlie’s death and the theft of the artwork. Figuring out how everything meshes together is a bit more difficult, and whether the reader gets there or not the book is an entertaining read all around. This is an excellent example of a cozy mystery with some entertaining twists and turns and no graphic violence.
My thanks to Minotaur Books St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advanced copy for review. The opinions stated here are entirely my own.