Wednesday, November 14, 2018

HARVEST OF SECRETS: A VISIT FROM ELLEN CROSBY


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RHYS BOWEN:  Ellen Crosby and I have been friends for quite a while and I was delighted to catch a short visit with her when she came to the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on Saturday. Here we are with store owner Barbara Peters.

Of course she was there to talk about her new book, HARVEST OF SECRETS, the latest in her Virginia Wine Country mysteries. And now she'll share some secrets with us. Welcome, Ellen:

ELLEN CROSBY:  A wise person once told me that we are all entitled to a private life, but living a secret life will get you in trouble. When I heard that it was like an earworm without the music: every now and then something would happen that made it pop back into my head and refuse to go away. So I knew sooner or later that bit of wisdom would find its way into one of my books. Harvest of Secrets is a story of family secrets, the heartache and trouble they cause, and the consequences of revealing a secret that will destroy someone’s private life.


A couple of winters ago a friend and I spent the morning at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a field trip to view an exhibition we both wanted to see. As we were standing in front of one of the paintings, she casually mentioned that she had subscribed to one of the find-your-ancestors services without telling anyone and got more than she bargained for when she received her results: an older half-brother she never knew existed. Not only that, he had been looking for her for years. When the two of them finally connected, her “new” brother told her that although he had been given up for adoption at birth, he had been raised by loving parents who had given him a wonderful, happy life. But after his adoptive parents passed away he knew he needed to find out who his biological parents were and what their story was. Because it was his story, too. Through the same DNA testing service my friend used, he found his mother—my friend’s mother—but couldn’t learn anything about his father, nor the circumstances surrounding his biological parents’ relationship and his birth. And only one person in the world could answer those questions.


Their mother.


To this day my friend’s mother still does not know that her son and daughter have met and become close. “What do I do?” my friend asked me that day at the National Gallery. “When my mother gave up my brother for adoption sixty years ago she had every expectation that her secret would remain a secret for life. She signed papers she believed guaranteed her privacy when she gave him up forever. Do you think she would want to meet him now? Did she ever tell my father about him? Was she raped or was it a consensual relationship? Should my brother and I tell her about our relationship? And what about my sister?”


There are no easy answers to those questions; I’m not even sure there are right or wrong answers. But it was enough to start me thinking about what happens when we find out things we didn’t know about our parents or grandparents or long ago ancestors, and how we deal with that new knowledge. How it changes us and what we do going forward if we discover, say, we’re related to a serial killer or we’re not actually Jewish or Native American. Unlike medical DNA testing, I’ve heard these advertised-on-television services referred to as “recreational genetics” because for $99 anyone can find out who else is hanging on their family tree. Even in their family forest. And you might not always like the people you find on those branches. (And, yes, I spit in a vial and sent it off to some lab because it was book research. And no, no surprises).


In Harvest of Secrets, Lucie Montgomery discovers the skull of a young woman buried just outside the family cemetery where all of her ancestors have been laid to rest since the late 1700s. The skull dates from the Civil War and Lucie is certain the woman is related to her. When she learns the woman had been bludgeoned to death, Lucie figures there are two possibilities: either the woman was a relative . . . or the killer was.


Like my friend, Lucie had been curious to learn more about her family’s heritage and secretly sent off a DNA sample to be tested. Also like my friend, Lucie’s results revealed something shocking, a secret she never expected to uncover. And now she has to deal with knowledge no one expected her to have.


Just as the long-ago past comes back to haunt Lucie, so does the recent past when a neighboring vineyard hires Jean-Claude de Merignac, a winemaker from a wealthy aristocratic French family who happened to be Lucie’s first big crush when she was a teenager. Like everyone else, Jean-Claude has secrets that he believed were safely buried in France. But before long his past catches up with him and he’s found stabbed to death with a pair of pruning shears. Suspicion falls on an immigrant worker—an easy target—but Lucie’s Hispanic farm manager tells he’s innocent, warning that if she will not help prove that someone else is the killer, none of her field hands will show up in the next few days to pick grapes during harvest.


It’s now imperative for Lucie to find out who murdered Jean-Claude, and she also wants to know what happened to the woman buried outside her cemetery. Finally, she needs to come to terms with what she learned about her own family.


What she finds in each instance is messy, complicated, and nothing she was expecting. But as she says in Harvest of Secrets, “When I opened Pandora’s Box and explored my DNA and my family’s history, I couldn’t stuff what spilled out back inside.” What Lucie finally realizes—as I have while writing this book—is that even though we each might be entitled to our privacy, in this day and age of the Internet, cameras that watch us everywhere, smart home devices, recreational genetics, and social networking, privacy is something that is becoming ever more elusive.


And like losing your virginity, once it’s gone, you can’t have it back.

ELLEN CROSBY is the author of the Virginia wine country mysteries, including HARVEST OF SECRETS, featuring vineyard owner Lucie Montgomery, which will be released by Minotaur Books on November 6, 2018. Her books have been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award; THE RIESLING RETRIBUTION won the 2009 Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best US Wine Literature Book. Crosby has also written two mysteries featuring international photojournalist Sophie Medina and MOSCOW NIGHTS, a standalone mystery. Previously she worked as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post, Moscow correspondent for ABC Radio News, and as an economist at the U.S. Senate. She is currently writing the 10th wine country mystery; learn more at http://www.ellencrosby.com.








41 comments:

  1. Ellen, your book sounds both timely and intriguing. I’m looking forward to discovering what Lucie’s learned about her family.

    Unfortunately, I think we’ll soon discover that, thanks to our technology, privacy has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Thank you for a most thoughtful post . . . .

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    1. Joan, it's so odd to be saying that about privacy becoming a thing of the past, but I think you're right. And we're responsible for putting our own information out there; it's not as if someone is spying on us or weaseling it out of us.

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  2. An intriguing line of thought, Ellen, about what we know vs. what we don't know.

    So many people using DNA search services are finding out their longheld beliefs in their own ancestry are flawed. Other side of the blanket births and the raping marauders of novels, after all, have a basis in historical fact. It would probably be more unusual to not have those kinds of curve balls in a family history than otherwise, regardless of how "pure" one's lineage.

    Maybe the last bastion of privacy is to avoid delving into the past at all.

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    1. Karen, when I was researching this topic, one of the things I learned was that now some of these services have started to warn people that there might be undesirable or unexpected consequences if they push the magic button. (In the end, though, they are selling a product).

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  3. Family secrets, indeed. The knowledge is easy to come by, it seems, these days, but you are so right about the messiness of it all. Time for me to catch up with Lucie and friends!

    My youngest brother submitted a DNA sample for genealogical purposes, using only his first initial with his last name as an identifier. A cousin who saw his results assumed it was another, female relative. At the time, I remember thinking, what if? What if someone was targeted by an unscrupulous relative they'd never suspect, a case of mistaken identity? Lots of possibilities with all the new technology--between internet access and DNA testing!

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    1. Flora, I agree. But who would have thought years ago when we (er, some of us) were kids that it would be possible to learn about, say, that unknown sibling or who your biological parents really were. Especially when the other party expected the secret to remain under lock and key.

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  4. Sounds very intriguing - I'll put that book on my list for sure. I've done my DNA results and found no surprises, which was sort of a letdown. On the other hand there were no shocking revelations either.

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  5. Hi, Ellen! What a great topic to chew over in a crime novel... Talk about "messy and complicated"! We used to torture my younger sister, saying she was adopted. Now that seems so not funny.

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    1. Hey, Hallie! I saw that you will be teaching in Tuscany this summer--wow, enjoy!

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  6. congratulations on your new release! Individual DNA testing is a timely topic.

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  7. Hi Ellen! Waving at you from London! What a great and timely topic to explore in a book. I had my DNA testing done last year, and while I didn't find anything shocking, I certainly thought about the possibilities. I haven't really delved into the ancestry part and now I'm wondering what I don't know... Congrats on the book! I've been so tempted to read it on Kindle, but am waiting to get the hardcover when I get home so I can share with Kayti, who is also such a big fan.

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    1. Hi, Debs! I have been looking at all your IG photos with longing and missing London. Especially when the city is decorated for Christmas! One of the things that I've learned about the service I used is that they Never Let You Go. I keep getting asked to participate in "increasing knowledge" or helping with research about some genetic trait or another. So far, I haven't done it. I figure they know enough about me!

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  8. Ellen, I'm so glad you were here because it brought to my attention that I have fallen behind on your books! This will give me the nudge I need to catch up.

    My family has its share of drama and curve balls without, to my knowledge, anyone having done the DNA testing. I'm almost afraid to think what that might introduce.

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    1. Susan, I hope you enjoy catching up! And as for DNA testing it sounds as if you don't want to go there!

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  9. So fascinating! … What did your friend do???
    I have not done DNA, but one of my cousins did, and found we are related to some famous… Wait for it… Reporters! More to come in another blog, but Ellen, hooray! Love your Books! But I still want to know what happened with your friend :-) what did you tell her?

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    1. Hank, I really didn't know what to tell her--and to this day, her mother still doesn't know. Nor does her sister! I think it's such a tough, emotional decision; it could either be therapeutic/cathartic or devastating. Plus, there's the question of whether her mother ever told her father about it. Remember the days as journalists when we had to be so careful to guard someone's privacy? Now there seems to be no filter and nothing off-limits.

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  10. Wonderful essay, welcome Ellen. I'm so torn about this subject--hopefully most people who find new relatives don't end up murdered:). I'm looking forward to reading this one...

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  11. What a timely topic! I don't have any desire to do my DNA, but The Girl kind of wants to. I'm pretty sure I know all about the ne'er do wells in my family, but you never know...

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Scary, isn't it!! My husband kept saying, "Are you SURE about this?" I would not have done it if I didn't need to know about the process for book research. And I'm so glad there were no surprises!

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  12. When I was up in Bar Harbor at MURDER BY THE BOOK (a neat little annual one-evening-and-a-day conference) one panel got talking about how crime fiction writers had had to deal with technology un-complicating previous problems the detective had to solve: getting in touch with the outside world (hello, mobile phone) Unidentifiable blood spatters (DNA test coming up) etc.

    I wish we had thought of this - how something like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me reveals new secrets and creates mysteries every day!

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    1. Julia, so good to hear from you! I often think about that dinner with every dessert on the menu we had in Oakmont years ago. One of the things I learned in my research is that there is not one big universal database. They are all proprietary so if you "do" your DNA through 23andMe and someone else in the family uses Ancestry.com, they don't share information. Plus there is CODIS, which is a database available for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. It's a lot more complicated than I realized!

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  13. Congrats on the new book, Ellen. It sounds fascinating! Secrets are always a good premise for a mystery. As for your observation about privacy, I agree 100%! I think in this day and age, the two things we need to guard most intensely are our privacy and out time.

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    1. Jenn, agreed! I don't know about you but trying to protect my writing time has become a task (not sure that is the right word) I never anticipated. There are so many other obligations--publicity, promotion, blogging (!), the editing process of the next book to be published, plus daily life and family.

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  14. Thanks, everyone, for all your comments. After a week of travel and a couple of "book cakes" at events, I finally fit in a workout at the gym this morning. I don't know if one can preemptively work off Thanksgiving dinner, but I'm trying. The DNA testing was a bit scary when I did it myself . . . there is one final button to push where you agree to allow folks to contact you. I still haven't done that; not sure I'm going to. Last year my husband told me that he read somewhere that the number 1 Christmas gift was . . . giving someone a DNA test kit!

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  15. Oh Ellen! I am so happy there's a new vineyard book out! Since I "met" you on the Reds last year I've read all the Lucie stories and am ready for more. My sister and I have have done the spit thing for Ancestry. I was more interested in the ethnic mix. No real surprises there. It is interesting that she has more of certain things than I do, and the reverse. You'd think we'd be exactly the same but evidently I didn't cover this topic in biology very well. Neither of us has pursued building a family tree. My big brother is working on that project. It is interesting that he joined Ancestry but did not do the DNA test.

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    1. A son and daughter-in-law moved to Salt Lake City this year--the Mormon Church has a huge database and a library that is famous as a place to research your family tree. They even have an interactive display in the LDS museum where you can start finding out who is hanging on your family tree! And I'm glad you are enjoying the books!

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  16. Ellen, welcome to Jungle Reds. I met you at Bouchercon in Toronto last year. This is a timely topic. I saw an interview on the tv news with a geneticist who helped the police find the serial killers through DNA testing. Some cold cases have been solved through DNA testing. I wondered if that aspect of DNA storyline would be in your book. I am adding your book to my tbr list.

    I had medical DNA testing and I was surprised that they did not test for heart disease nor asthma / sinuses. Many of my ancestors died of heart disease.

    Genealogy research can be fun! For me, it confirmed something that I wondered about. I noticed a strong resemblance between a portrait (a painting) that I saw in the Scottish National Gallery and myself. And the family tree confirmed what I thought. The DNA confirmed that my heritage included the British Isles, including Scotland.

    Diana

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    1. Thanks for sharing all that information on DNA medical testing, Diana! And I hope you enjoy "Harvest of Secrets."

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  17. Congratulations on the new book, Ellen. I apologize for not having gotten to this series yet, but it is definitely on my list of series I want to catch up on. When people ask what super power a person would want, by answer is lightning fast reading and retention speed.

    I know so much of my father's side of our family history, especially the Daniel Boone side, but I don't know as much about my mother's. I have an individual DNA test on hand that I keep meaning to send in, but I just haven't yet. I don't know what's so hard about spitting and mailing something. I need to get on that.

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    1. Wow, Kathy--if you ever figure out how to get that lightning fast reading super power, please share! And Daniel Boone in your family tree. Sounds like you have some interesting family history!

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  19. This is so interesting I am looking forward to reading your book. Your friends experience is similar to mine except it doesn't involve DNA but just the 'advertising' of your family tree on a site like Ancestry. Like millions of others I enjoy tracking my forebears and I am happy to share my information with others of a like mind. However I became aware of someone copying the photo's of family members in quite a close part of my tree. I messaged them and asked them how they connected to my family. It was a year before I had an answer. A woman in the UK had waited until her father (she had asic information about her birth parents and she had done some research on Ancestry) had died before contacting me to tell me that she is a cousin, illegitimate and adopted as a baby. Her father told her mother that he couldn't support her, he was already engaged! As happened so often she gave her child up for adoption. So I now know that sordid tale (but I was pretty excited I must say to have an unknown cousin and we still communicate at Christmas). However, on reflection this push to trace ancestors with or without DNA does compromise knowledge of events that the original protagonists must have believed would be forever private. I also found out via British army papers that my Grandad was treated for Gonorrhea during his service in WWI. Another secret out there for public consumption. I know that my gentle, loving and caring grandfather would be appalled that it's now public knowledge if someone want's to look. Exciting though it is to be able to see oneself as part of a bigger picture it certainly comes with that feeling that we are invading the privacy of those that went before us.

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    1. Wow, what a story. As you said, so many relatives who came before us believed their private affairs would always remain a secret. It's a slippery slope, isn't it?

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  20. I have no interest learning more about my family's past than the stories told by my mother and her mother. My father seldom talked about his family history and I never remember his parents talking about it either. The whole DNA test thing just creeps me out. (Although I see its practical side for medical purposes and its emotional ties side from knowing people who are adopted.) There are so many people and things to learn about and connect with in the present that delving into the unknown past doesn't tempt me.

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    1. My dad wrote his autobiography years ago and made photocopies of it for my brothers and me. I'm glad to have this document to know about events in his life that influenced who he was--plus it also makes me aware how fragile memory is. There are so many events in my childhood that I'm now double checking with my 89 and 91 year old mother and father. Like I said, delving into the past is messy and complicated, don't you think?

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    2. Messy and complicated...but talking about and remembering with or mis-remembering with people is a preferred mess and complication to scientific testing for me. When I remember my childhood is when I miss my parents the most, Daddy would be 97 and Mother 94.

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  21. Of course, as incorporated into Ellen Crosby's mystery would be a delight to read!

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