Family Skeletons (1997) by Rett MacPherson (Lauretta Allen)
Torie (Victory) O'Shea is a bit surprised when Norah Zumwalt approaches her at the annual Old German Days festival and asks her to research her family trees. Torie is New Kassel's resedent historian, genealogist, and tour guide for the historic Gaheimer house. Norah has always been a bit standoffish and Torie hasn't spoken more than about three words to her. But Norah tells the historian that her main objective is to track down her father--a father who never married her mother and never came home from World War II. She also wants to know about her ancestors, but it's her father she wants to find.
She gives Torie the last letters Eugene Counts wrote. Letters that say how much he loves Violet Pritcher and that he plans to come back to her. Why didn't he? Torie is intrigued and even though it's her busiest time of year as historian she agrees to do what she can. Given how little information Norah has about her father and his family, Torie doesn't expect to find anything quickly. But she has amazing luck and within a day she knows that Norah's father is still alive...and lives just down the road in another small Missouri town. She speaks to Norah on the phone and tries to tell her the news, but their conversation is interrupted when someone comes to Norah's door and she abruptly ends the phone call. When Torie tries to call her later, she's nowhere to be found--not at home and not at her antique shop where she was expected to show up and relieve the woman who was minding the store.
Torie is concerned...as particular as Norah was, it's hard to imagine that she wouldn't show up at her shop without calling her assistant. She decides to go to Norah's house and check on her, only to find the door ajar and Norah's brutally murdered body. She soon finds herself more involved in the murder investigation than either her husband or Sheriff Brooke would like. But her inquisitive nature won't let her leave it alone. Did Norah stir up trouble when she asked Torie to search for Eugene Counts? Or was it a coincidence that she was killed just after the request? Her son and daughter don't seem too upset about the murder and her boyfriend didn't even come to the funeral. Both her boyfriend and her ex-husband are beneficiaries on life insurance policies, so maybe money is a motive. Torie and the Sheriff work together to catch a murderer.
This is the first in one of the earliest cozy series featuring a genealogist. For a first mystery, it is nicely plotted with plenty of action and several suspects to choose from. It also has a good small-town setting and the historical festival adds to the background. However, it is evident that MacPherson is finding her feet with the series theme and genealogical research isn't really displayed to full advantage. Torie does a bit of scanning old newspaper articles and interviews a few relatives, but there isn't much beyond that. The most disappointing part of the mystery was [*spoiler encoded in ROT13] gung gur znva zheqre jnfa'g rira eryngrq gb gur trarnybtl gurzr. Bgure qrnguf qvq pbaarpg gb Gbevr'f vavgvny vairfgvtngvba vagb Abenu Mhzjnyg'f snzvyl gerr, ohg Abenu'f qrngu? Anu--whfg n pnfr bs "vs V pna'g unir ure, abobql pna." Given the genealogical theme, it just wasn't satisfying as a solution.
It was interesting enough that I'd like to try another--just to see if genealogy plays a bigger role in future installments and also to see if the recurring characters grow on me. I'm not completely sold on Torie as an amateur sleuth or her interactions with other people (she's one moody lady...). ★★★
*To decode: copy coded portion and paste into the decoder at the link above.
First line: The Lick-a-Pot Candy Shoppe is located on the corner of Jefferson Street and Hermann Avenue, in the town of New Kassel, Missouri.
Last line: Sheriff Brooke leaned close to my ear then, and whispered, "Now I can be closer to your mother."
Deaths = 7 (six stabbed; one natural)