Bloodline...A Book Review
A Genealogical Mystery
By Fiona Mountain
Signet Mystery, an imprint of the Penguin Group (USA). Paperback ISBN: 978-0-451-22268-8;
296 pages; RRP $6.99.
A book review by Marianne Plumridge
Genealogy is often seen as a gentle hobby of enthusiasts who want to reconnect with their ancestors, the roots from whence they sprung. Not often is it referred to as dangerous or worth murdering someone over. However, the past often surprises us with its scandal, sordidness, criminal elements and radical inaccuracies, as well as the tedium of quiet life after quiet life. Beware of bestirring the dust of ages past, for there are those who don’t like the coverlet of anonymity lifted for all the world to see and judge.
And there are those who would kill to let sleeping secrets lie.
When Natasha Blake accepts a very well paid emergency commission to trace a young man’s family tree for his prospective grandfather in law, it seems mysterious only in the fact that her client wouldn’t do it himself. Wealthy magnate, Charles Seagrove is an accomplished genealogist of note, and quite able to trace his soon to be son in law’s antecedents for himself. Instead, he hires Natasha for a very tidy sum. Somehow, the results of the research have a profound affect on Seagrove and he moves to end his grand daughter’s betrothal to her beloved John. No one really understands why. When Seagrove is murdered the two days after a garden party at Shadwell Manor, and raving great row with his granddaughter over her fiancé, Natasha is branded the cause of it all. At least her commissioned research is, but she is made the butt of their anger. The remaining Seagroves: wife, son, and granddaughter all pour outrage, aggression and anger over Natasha and accuse her of deliberately interfering with the family and doing damage. I’m quite at a loss as to why they should do so, other than perhaps the misdirected blame of the bereaved. The son, Richard Seagrove, forces Natasha to continue her research into the Hellier family to find out why Charles Seagrove turned on his future son in law, and perhaps the truth of his own murder. In delving into the history of Charles Seagrove himself and the increasingly shadowy past of Shadwell manor, Natasha turns up more than she bargained for. Nothing is what it seems, and nor was the victim. The consequences of his actions and beliefs affect three generations of his family, destroys lives, and almost destroys the one about to be born. In amongst it all are a strange anonymous letter, the ghostly sounds of a baby crying, secrets, death, legacy, longing, and revenge, which Natasha’s questing fingers must tease into a semblance of order and truth.
The roots of the cause lay in the outcome of the First World War and its famed Christmas Truce, the rise of the Nazis in the new Germany, and the radical effects of genocide and breeding programs. And the resulting effect on one young, impressionable boy, Charles Seagrove, and his response to it. Though, how embracing the Nazi beliefs connects with the honor and dignity of the ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914, as recounted in the novel, is never fully explained. The reader might benefit from the thought processes of Charles Seagrove, and how he made the journey from the former to the latter with such absolute conviction. But they are not fully aired or explored, mores the pity. There is a generalization of how Seagrove was one of many wealthy landowners in England, as well as the unemployed masses, who were “... disillusioned by what they saw as the useless slaughter of the First World War, harbored a sense of debt that needed to be paid to the dead, were angered by the failure of governments create a home fit for heroes and a society that adequately compensated for the horror of the trenches…” but it doesn’t quite cover the conversion of this charismatic Englishman into a traitor and a callous usurer of human life. The retelling of Seagrove’s time in Nazi Germany, towards the climax in the book, only really covers his indoctrination into the fanatical Nazi belief in racial bloodlines, bad and good, and the Lebensborn program it operated. In reality, the rise of Nazism and the youth organizations destroyed much of the family unit as a whole in Germany. Loyalty to the party and the Fuhrer were placed above familial loyalties, and children were encouraged to turn their parents, siblings, and other relatives in to the authorities for the slightest misdemeanor against the Nazi system. Not to mention that with luring the youth born to country ways and farming into the cities, many families lost valuable assistance in running their farms and maintaining harvests, etcetera. Community and familial infrastructure suffered accordingly and took decades to recover. While Nazism publicly lauded the perfect German family, its actions detrimentally undermined it. Like Charles Seagrove, the Nazis and any other closely involved, they couldn’t see the flaws in the process of selective breeding, or the inability of the human mind to accept rigid conditioning for long. Sadly, many of the Lebensborn babies were looked after in huge groups and so had no immediate input from a parent or sibling. They had a lower IQ in later years and sociological problems. Others actually adjusted and survived fairly well when taken into loving homes after the war. Such was the result of the great Nazi breeding program’s persistent pursuit to create the perfect ‘Aryan’ race. Ms. Mountain is quite correct in saying that influence and experience can shape a person just as much, if not more so, than genes and bloodlines.
Natasha Blake has her own demons to fight throughout this story. She is the adoptive child of loving parents, who doesn’t know who or where she came from. Perhaps this is why she is so good at tracing the genealogy of others. It helps nurture the belief that she might one day find her own family origins. Meanwhile, Natasha has difficulty with relationships. Her family has its own problems in the fact that her adoptive father, Steven, is something of a womanizer. Natasha is placed in a difficult position because she recognizes him for what he is, and can’t bear for her mother to be hurt. It’s a relief when Natasha’s mother, Ann, comes into her own – which brings its own comfort, as well as pain. Always feeling inadequate, and not really belonging, Natasha’s unrest manifests itself in dogged determination, constant insomnia and not looking after herself. It’s easier to fix other people’s needs than face her own and do something about them. Her vacillation on this lands her in hospital twice. Once, self inflicted, and second, as the result of her confronting the murderer and disarming a distraught young woman at the same time. Consequently, I rather liked this character.
Fiona Mountain is a great storyteller. And the few minor flaws that leapt off the page at me were more editorial than story related. All in all, Bloodline was a wonderfully entertaining read that more than filled a dreary day in winter. Who would have thought that genealogy could be so exciting? Though pursuing lines of research is so little different than pursuing murder and mystery clues. Well done.