Fiction genres are malleable. Books move in and out of popularity and often straddle several genres. Genealogy fiction is a sub-genre, usually combining murder mystery and crime with genealogical research. But what defines genealogy fiction? Must the protagonist be a genealogist to qualify?
My first foray into genealogy fiction was The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell. I liked it so much I immediately bought Blood Atonement and finished it within days. As a seasoned genealogist, I was hooked. Before long, I had graduated to Steve Robinson and his Jefferson Tayte mysteries and Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s forensic genealogist Morton Farrier. I am currently reading Goodwin’s The Suffragette’s Secret and very good it is too. Top of my genealogy fiction ‘to read’ list is Stephen Molyneau’s The Marriage Certificate and M J Lee’s The Irish Inheritance when time allows.
When I wrote Vote for Murder, it was inevitably going to have a genealogical theme being based on two of my ancestors, one a suffragette and one a convicted poisoner. The Fressingfield Witch is also based on my ancestry and was inspired by a public accusation of witchcraft made against a distant relative. The protagonist in Vote for Murder is an independent young suffragette who unravels a murder using a diary and family records. Private Investigator Lawrence Harpham uses parish and probate records to unmask the murderer in The Fressingfield Witch, but neither Lawrence nor suffragette, Louisa are genealogists. Are the books then worthy of the sub-genre classification of genealogy fiction? And does it matter that they are both set in Victorian times where the opportunity to use family history records was more limited? One never wants to disappoint an audience so getting the genre right is important. But I believe that both books nestle well into the genealogy fiction genre, even if they are not quite the same as their better-known counterparts.
The below is a list of well-known genealogy fiction writers. Some I have yet to read, but I heartily recommend the top three. Enjoy.
Dan Waddell – The Blood Detective & Blood Atonement
Steve Robinson – Any of his Jefferson Tayte offerings
Nathan Dylan Goodwin – Any Morton Farrier, forensic genealogist
M K Jones – The Genealogy Detectives
Geraldine Wall – File under Fear/Family/Fidelity
Stephen Molyneaux – The Marriage Certificate
M J Lee – The Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mysteries
John Nixon – Madeleine Porter Mysteries
Beryl Taylor – Therese
Crucial to the setting of ‘The Fressingfield Witch’, is The Fox and Goose Inn which nestles in front of the churchyard. Formerly the guildhall of St Margaret of Antioch, the structure was built around 1509 and has been a public house since 1710. The side facing the churchyard is an attractive mix of brick and timbers and there is an interesting carved corner post with the figure of Saint Margaret on the church side of the building. The post, quite naturally, appears worn and I worked it into the book with one of the characters touching it for luck.
The village of Fressingfield in the book is populated with real inhabitants from the 1891 census, mostly where they do not play a lead role – and even sometimes where they do. The publican in 1891 was 63-year-old Benjamin Powley from Burlingham, Norfolk, coincidentally bearing the same name as one of my nephews. Prior to that, he was victualler at ‘The Feathers’ in North Walsham.
Though serving as a public house, The Fox & Goose regularly hosted inquests. The following, extracted from The Ipswich Journal 8th November 1884, records the inquest following the death of Jonathan Carter, an integral event in ‘The Fressingfield Witch’:
Sudden Death – An inquest was held at the Fox and Goose Inn on Monday morning before C.W. Chaston, Esq upon the body of Jonathan Carter, agricultural labourer, aged 77 years. Harriet Corbyn stated that the deceased, who was her brother, had lived with her and her husband for the last four years; he had had fair health and witness had not heard him complain. He left home about nine a.m. on Saturday to be shaved, which was the last time the witness saw him alive. Several of the family had died of heart disease. Deceased had not for a long time been attended by a medical man. Harriet King, widow, said that as she was walking through the churchyard on Saturday morning, about 10 o’clock, she noticed someone lying on the path, and on going up found it was the deceased. She spoke to him, but receiving no answer she went at once for assistance. John Edwards, baker, said that in consequence of what the last witness said to him on Saturday, he went into the churchyard and found the deceased lying as described. He breathed twice, and almost immediately afterwards expired. Dr Anderson stated that he had made an external examination of the body, and found no marks of violence. Judging from his experience and from the evidence given, he was of the opinion that death was caused by sudden failure of the heart’s action. The jury returned a verdict accordingly.
Today, The Fox & Goose is a popular, friendly restaurant attracting a range of satisfied customers and even coming to the notice of The Telegraph. It is a far cry from the place of torture assigned to its upper floor in the book – a place where Matthew Hopkins accused Faith Mills of witchcraft and tried to extract a confession using the cruellest methods. Nowadays, the only cruelty is having to choose from so many delicious menu options. Time has moved on, in a good way.
Corvus corone aka the carrion crow appears throughout ‘The Fressingfield Witch’. In fact, the book was nearly entitled ‘Crowfall.” It features a crow which was adopted as an unofficial family crest following the Witch Trials and was subsequently used to create terror amongst those of a superstitious nature.
Fear and prejudice has long been held against the crow whose poor reputation existed from ancient times. A single crow is considered unlucky and it is unsurprising that the collective name for these birds is a ‘murder’ of crows. If a crow perches near or circles a house, it foretells a death. If it swoops over the paternal house, it is a sign of misfortune. A crow forsaking a flock indicates a famine.
Crows have often been used in literature. Shakespeare prefaced some of his darker scenes with the introduction of crows or ravens; this below from Macbeth:
“Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their prey do rouse.”
Crows are intelligent animals. They remember faces, particularly when they have experienced cruelty. They possess the rare ability to problem solve. Crows are smart enough to drop nuts from great heights to get at the kernel and, in this more modern age, have been seen tossing nuts in front of passing cars to take advantage of an easy nut-cracking facility.
The Fressingfield Witch begins with a quote from Hudibas. This 17th century narrative poem by Samuel Butler satirised the Civil War. It also features crows.
“Is it not ominous, in all countries
When crows and ravens croak on trees
The Roman senate, when within
The city walls, an owl was seen
Did cause their clergy with lestrations
(Our synod calls Humiliation)
The round face’d prodigy t’avert
From doing town or country hurt”
Anyone looking at my recent Google search history, would assume I’m about to do something very, very bad. They would be advising my husband to inspect his coffee before drinking it and cautioning him not to eat anything I’ve cooked. (Not that he would anyway. Cooking is not my forte).
My search history is full of poisons. Arsenic, antimony, strychnine. You name it, I’ve considered it as a means to dispatch my victims. Writing a murder mystery requires a lot of research to find a credible method of poisoning and one that would have been easy to procure in Victorian times.
In the end, it had to be taxine – it’s qualities were just right for The Fressingfield Witch. Taxine is an alkaloid compound, handily present in the yew tree. Most parts of the yew are poisonous (except for the fleshy red seed covering). The seeds are particularly high in taxine. Dried seeds and leaves retain their ability to poison for several months.
The body absorbs taxine quickly and in extreme cases, death can occur before any other symptoms are seen. Usefully, a victim can recover especially if given an emetic in the earliest stages, thus giving the author a nice degree of flexibility.
Using taxine puts me in good company with other writers, notably William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Shakespeare added yew to the witch’s cauldron in Macbeth and Christie poisoned Mr Fortescue with taxine in ‘A Pocket Full of Rye.’
It’s surprisingly under-used in books, all things considered. Writers tend to favour arsenic as it was so easily available in Victorian times. It was also a popular choice for real murderers. Mary Ann Cotton, Florence Maybrick and Madeleine Smith all used arsenic to kill. In fact, Suffolk murderess Mary Cage used it and it was the newspaper account of her trial that provided the inspiration for Vote for Murder. I dabbled with antimony poisoning in that one too.
Anyway, a relevant excerpt from The Fressingfield Witch:
“The fruit of the yew has long been my friend. I harvest it myself, then dry it and store it safely away, always wearing gloves. It is a powerful toxin. My mother taught me not to take risks.”
This afternoon I spoke at Peterborough’s John Clare Theatre on the subject of ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Fens’, an event organised by Peterborough Archives. My talk focussed particularly on evidence of witchcraft and magic from Peterborough and the surrounding countryside. I am always delighted on such occasions to hear stories from the audience, and on this occasion I was not disappointed. One audience member reported that, as a small child, her mother (who was born in 1891) suffered from warts and the family was unable to afford a doctor. The girl was accordingly sent to a Peterborough ‘witch’ who lived in a brownstone cottage at the junction of Cobden Street and Walpole Street. The ‘witch’ presented the girl with a snail; the audience member was unable to remember the rest of the story, but it is likely that the snail was meant to be rubbed on the warts…
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The Fressingfield Witch was inspired by articles from national and local papers about Mary Ann Corbyn and her alleged use of witchcraft to procure the death of her step-granddaughter. Below is an extract from the Framlingham Weekly News 12 April 1890:
“An inquest was held on Wednesday evening at Gooch’s Farm House, Fressingfield, before C W Chaston Esq touching the death of Edith Margaret Hammond, aged 11 weeks, daughter of Ben Hammond, agricultural labourer…
…Deceased seemed very queer on Friday, and early on Saturday morning was taken home in a perambulator by witness and his wife. On the way they noticed smoke issuing from the perambulator and deceased died after arrival home.
Sarah Hammond, the mother, said that when she took deceased out of the perambulator, the clothing was quite hot and dry and smelt of brimstone. She had no doubt but that deceased’s death was due to witchcraft and wickedness…
…George Corbyn of Wingfield, grandfather to the deceased, gave it as his opinion that his late wife had the powers of a witch and that he in consequence used always to try to do what she wanted him.
The jury found that deceased came to her death from shock to the system, caused by the external application of some irritant, the nature of which there was not sufficient evidence to show.”