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  • Fiona Mountain

A Detective with a Difference. Every family has a skeleton in the cupboard!By Fiona Mountain

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

Combining Mystery with History


My first novel, Isabella, was a straight historical story about the unsolved mysteries surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty. For my second book I wanted to write something set entirely in the present day but with a historical perspective. And a genealogical mystery seemed the perfect solution for several reasons.


I have always enjoyed thrillers and mysteries but didn't want to write a traditional police procedural. A novel featuring an ancestor detective seemed a great way of giving a fresh slant to crime fiction and combining mystery with history - with a dash of gothic and the supernatural thrown in for good measure. Which is easy enough to do, since in so many ways the job of a genealogist is to bring the dead back to life!


Ancestor Detective is a term often used by genealogists to describe what they do. It is very apt, since just as in police detective work, researching family history involves collecting evidence, following clues, piecing together puzzles and finding missing links. Literally a matter of life and death, investigations involve uncovering secrets and scandals; conspiracies and intrigues; forgotten tragedies and buried crimes. Clients are the haunted, the hopeful, the academic or the plain curious, to whom discoveries may cause shock, horror, sorrow, disappointment or joy.



Cases do not just involve tracking down long lost relatives. Genealogists can find themselves working with biographers, archaeologists, geneticists, or the police. In fact, anyone for whom the past has a relevance - in other words, all of us.

This was my starting point for Pale as the Dead, the first in a series of mysteries starring Natasha Blake, an ambitious young genealogist with a passion for history, whose choice of career is partly driven by the mystery of her own roots.


Combining Mystery with History My first novel, Isabella, was a straight historical story about the unsolved mysteries surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty. For my second book I wanted to write something set entirely in the present day but with a historical perspective. And a genealogical mystery seemed the perfect solution for several reasons.


I have always enjoyed thrillers and mysteries but didn't want to write a traditional police procedural. A novel featuring an ancestor detective seemed a great way of giving a fresh slant to crime fiction and combining mystery with history - with a dash of gothic and the supernatural thrown in for good measure. Which is easy enough to do, since in so many ways the job of a genealogist is to bring the dead back to life!

Everyone can be a Detective It also seemed the right time to write this kind of book. Not only is genealogy now the most popular hobby in the UK, but there are more websites devoted to it than for any other subject, except pornography.


As soon as I started the research for Pale as the Dead I understood why family history is so addictive, and why even those who claim to have little interest in history, such as it is taught in schools, are gripped by their own family history. You only have to visit the Family Record Centre in Clerkenwell, London, to see why. There you are surrounded by thousands of names, thousands of lives and lost stories; pain, bravery, joys and passions, infinite configurations of relationships, through blood and friendship and chance acquaintance, weaving together and severing, waiting to be unearthed and unravelled.

Not only does family history make the past startlingly relevant and personal, but researching is also great fun, and lets anyone dabble in a little real detective work, finding a host of missing persons, tracing back through a myriad of fascinating records, from dustily alluring parish registers to court, coroners and convict reports.


It is a real thrill to find, staring up at you from the indexes, or some obscure manuscript or old book, a name, a person you've been searching for. By piecing together strands of evidence of a person's existence they are made suddenly real. And you don't want to stop there. You want to go on breathing the life back into them, finding evidence which illuminates, even if only glimmeringly, their character, joys and sorrows. Using photographs, letters, inscriptions on graves and other genealogical tools such as trade directories, prison and military records, you begin to shade in the past, the ephemera of the day-to-day life of a man or woman or child not considered exceptional enough to secure a place in the reference books. But someone who lived a life parallel to your own, and who becomes more captivating and believable and significant to you personally- because it is you who'd discovered them again - than the most sensational, documented historical figures. And if you know a person is actually related to you, it makes the discoveries so much more compelling, helps us to understand ourselves a little better, to feel more comfortable in our own skins.

When history is viewed in terms of generations - when you think that our great-grandmothers could have been alive during Queen Victoria's reign, the past seems so much closer.





Genes and Curses When I was developing the idea for Pale as the Dead and the Natasha Blake series I thought that the most challenging aspect would be to find different ways of linking a historical story with a present day one, but I've discovered that this is not difficult at all. We are all affected by the actions of our ancestors, from who they married to how they chose to live their lives - and it goes far deeper than that.

Recent advances in genetics have added a whole new dimension and significance to family history - we all carry the past, and our ancestors, inside us, in every cell of our bodies. Through genes, and genealogy, there is now no arguing that the past affects the present in the most powerful and permanent ways.


This was another inspiration for Pale as the Dead, as was a thought-provoking book entitled Ancestor Syndrome by Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, which explores the concept of inherited fate; how illnesses, accidents and emotions are not chance events but responses to the experiences of our ancestors, and an explanation for why some families, like the Kennedys for example, seem to be cursed


A Real Mystery In Pale as the Dead the historical focus is Lizzie Siddal, a real and fascinating historical figure whose beauty and tragic, romantic life have made her into a legend with enduring appeal. Countless books and articles have been written about her; her image is universally known and has almost become part of popular culture, the face in the famous and romantic paintings adorning posters, greetings cards, pop album covers and T-shirts. Yet, ideally, from a novelists' point of view, very little is know of Lizzie's life, her death is shrouded in mystery and she is perhaps best known for the macabre, now almost mythical story of the exhumation of her coffin from Highgate Cemetery. When Lizzie died her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, overcome by grief and guilt, placed beside her his manuscript poems which she had loved, but six years later he wanted to publish them and arranged an exhumation. When the coffin was opened, Lizzie's face was still as beautiful as ever and her famed red hair shone in the firelight. Just how Lizzie died has long been cause for conjecture. Rumours of a lost suicide note persist but no such note has ever come to light. However, for two years it was said that Rossetti saw Lizzie's ghost every night and he left strict instructions that he was on no account to be buried beside her at Highgate - an odd request since the rest of his family lie there.


Secrets and Lies Pale as the Dead is the story of how the disappearance of a young girl, Bethany, appears to be linked in some way to Lizzie Siddal. Bethany's lover, Adam, asks Natasha to help him find Bethany, using an old diary, and in doing so Natasha becomes embroiled in a race against time, discovers a family tragedy and horrific crime and comes to suspect that Bethany's, and her own life may be in danger.


The most difficult and time consuming aspect of writing a genealogical mystery turned out to be working out the complicated trail Natasha must follow to solve the case. A trail which takes her from her Cotswold home to ancient houses, overgrown graveyards, into cyberspace and the twilit world of secret societies. As in any hunt for a missing person, Natasha interviews relatives and friends but also uses the vast resources available to genealogists. To keep this important part of the story accurate I had to become a detective myself, and I certainly experienced some of the satisfaction and excitement of such investigative work.

The many people I have contacted and spoken to in the course of researching and writing Pale as the Dead have convinced me that the old adage is true - every family does have a skeleton in the cupboard. You only have to check out websites such as Convict Central and the Black Sheep Society of Genealogists. In the past people were ashamed of their criminal ancestors but nowadays there is a certain kudos and even glamour to claiming a 'blacksheep' of your own.

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