“Those Wonderful Skeletons in Our Closets” (by Suzanne Arruda)

In a few weeks EQMM’s November issue will mail to subscribers. It contains “Deep Shaft,” the EQMM debut of Suzanne Arruda, best known for her Jade del Cameron adventure/mystery series set in post WWI Africa (published by NAL/Penguin).  Suzanne is also a co-author of Varmints Ink, a web-comic about a fictional zoo. She currently lives in the “Little Balkans” region of Kansas, a setting she employs in her upcoming historical suspense story for us. Suzanne can be found on Facebook as Suzanne Arruda Mystery Writer and as Varmints Ink Fanpage.—Janet Hutchings


When I was yet again a graduate student, I was introduced to an undergraduate who proudly informed me that her great (several times) grand-something-or-other was President Buchanan. I told her I was sorry. At the time, it seemed like an appropriate response. Having a president in one’s past seemed like a high bar to live up to, even if it was Buchanan.

I have since wondered what it would be like to have someone so notable in my ancestral tree, a Bavarian princess perhaps, or a great inventor, or yes, even a president (just not Buchanan). In my family documents, there is a line about one of my paternal grandfather’s ancestors who first came over from Great Britain. It appears he was forced to leave because of an illicit affair. I believe a clergyman was also involved in the story somehow, perhaps the cuckolded husband. Aha! Now there’s an ancestor with a story. That’s something around which I can weave a plot. Certainly someone might wish to kill him or the clergyman. I would suspect the cheating wife of the murder of either one.

If I search further back into my ancestry, into the realms of the dubious, I find a trace of Scottish. And certainly there are some famous Scots that anyone would love to point to in their family tree. Is there a William Wallace in mine? A Robert the Bruce? No. Eoin (John) the Lame was in a rival clan and sided more with the English. My ancestor fought and defeated “The Bruce” at the Battle of Dail Righ. John eventually found Scotland too hot for him and fled to England where one of his descendents would flee to the United States after an illicit love affair. Detect a pattern here? Get in trouble and run for it. Perhaps it’s because I write and love mysteries that I welcome these reprobates in my past.

But it doesn’t stop with my family. On my husband’s side is a forger. Seriously. His ancestors emigrated from the Azores Islands and a body needed a birth certificate to emigrate from there to either the USA or to Brazil. So this grandfather forged the needed certificates. Add someone desperate to flee (such as one of my ancestors) because of a murder, and you’ve got a plot. Hooray, I have a scalawag-in-law.

In the part of the country where I now reside, bootlegging was an honorable occupation during prohibition. It put food on the table, and a great many residents will proudly point to a bootlegging ancestor. I truly think that most people don’t think of those ancestors as dishonest as much as they might think the law had been dishonest. In other words, we aren’t necessarily admiring these ancestors as scalawags but as people who fought fate and strived to survive or make a living in the face of adversity.

Is it true then that we actually relish having a bad apple in our family tree? I’m not a psychiatrist—I don’t even play one on TV, but I do find the reprobates more interesting and certainly easier to live up to than the standard hero. They don’t set a high bar for behavior. We can look good by comparison.

But a person classified as a villain now might not necessarily have been a bad person in their own lifetime. For example, one friend had Tory ancestors during the Revolutionary War. At this point, we boo and hiss that alliance, but these people lost everything they had just by backing the wrong side, a side they believed was right. They had to start anew farther south. Another patriarch married beneath his station and was disinherited. This friend remarked: “Sometimes the interest isn’t that the person’s exploits are negative as such, but that they caused a sensation in a certain culture or era by going against the flow. Going against the society ‘norm’ will definitely make us sit up and take notice—perhaps cheering that person on.”

Some others do have people in their tree that were definitely outside the law. As an example, another friend had a member that rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and then with Jesse James. Now that entire band has been overly romanticized, but this lady knows her ancestral tree “leaf” for what he was. What she admires most is that, at his mother and sister’s request, he left his life of crime. One of the gang members murdered him for it. Sometimes rising above one’s past requires a heavy price.

Any of those family stories could be easily woven into all sorts of dire plots in which the ancestor could be either victim or accused, innocent or guilty. I asked criminal forensic psychologist, Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D what he thought about this appeal of scandalous rogues in our past. Dr. Mattiuzzi replied: “In general, people like to identify with others (including ancestors) who are famous or notable because it makes them feel important, special, unique, or significant themselves. It is easy to take pride in an accomplished family member. If the ancestor has notoriety, rather than fame, I think what people ask is: “What does that say about me and the kind of stock that I come from?”

Dr. Mattiuzzi added “People like to identify with the outlaw and the rebel, the nonconformist who didn’t choose to play by the rules. The people in your past are the characters in your life story or your personal mythology. Whether they are wonderful characters or not depends on the stories that are told about them and what you take from that. Who people choose to identify with says something about the individual. It also says something about how the story is told.”

So it seems what we actually admire are people with a sense of mystery about them. When we write or read mysteries, we want to be able to identify in part with the characters in the book. We want heroes who struggle with life rather than surmount all difficulties like a Greek god. And we generally prefer villains who had a touch of humanity about them, people that we can point to and say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” We recognize those same characters in our own family trees.

From that perspective, even Buchanan could be a noteworthy ancestor.

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3 Responses to “Those Wonderful Skeletons in Our Closets” (by Suzanne Arruda)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    I really enjoyed this and can certainly relate. My grandfather ran two speakeasy locations in Greenwich village, one featuring an upstairs brothel. I used that history to write The Alimony Prison which appeared years back in EQMM. Although he died long before I was born (official family explanation: accidental drowning) I felt quite connected to him as I conceived of and wrote that story. Our family histories are often more interesting than our own lives. More dangerous as well.

  2. Helena Kocevar says:

    In the near future I will start searching for my ancestors in Slovenia. I’ve heard that my grandfather was a guard in Franz Joseph’s Army. I’ve also hard that he was called a “jailbird” by a brother-in-law. There will be some interesting facts to unearth.

  3. Sandi Ault says:

    Loved this blog. I haven’t done the ancestry investigations, but my sis keeps finding odd bits of information as she works the trail of our parents back into the past. Makes me wonder how many skeletons she’s going to find in there!

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