Of Good Breeding: Mysteries Featuring Eugenics

Eugenics is an often-overlooked stain on our nation's history, yet most people don't know much, if anything about it. If you are in the majority, here's a very basic primer: eugenics was a junk science that held that people could breed themselves like farm animals to come up with and propagate the best traits and weed out defective ones. Sound like the Nazis' blueprint for the Master Race? Well, the Nazis got a lot of their ideas (and encouragement) from American eugenicists. In fact, eugenics was popular in many areas and didn't completely die out until WWII, when it became clear to everyone what the logical conclusion was. Of course, the racism and ableism inherent in eugenics hasn't gone away, and some eugenicist theories are still embraced by bigots today. Interestingly, contemporary fiction writers have seized on the history of eugenics to both inform and entertain. I'll be covering mysteries in this blog post.

The most recent mystery to deal with eugenics is The Gene Police by Elliot Light. Shep Harrington went to jail for a crime he didn't commit, was exonerated, and became a lawyer. His friend, an African-American state trooper, wants legal representation when he confesses to using the state DNA database to find a long-lost relative. There's also the question of a 50-year-old photograph of a white woman with a black baby. All this gets Shep into the sordid history of a hospital of last resort for the local African-American community, the murder of a travel journalist, and, of course, eugenics. Deep backstory of the characters and the outrage-inducing history of eugenics make this mystery both compelling and thought-provoking.

One of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels involves eugenics: Survival of the Fittest. Alex is called in after the murder of an Israeli diplomat's disabled daughter and is forced to work with an Israeli detective, Daniel Sharavi (who was the protagonist of The Butcher's Theater). Things get really bizarre with a string of related killings of people with disabilities and at least one suspicious suicide. Alex ends up infiltrating a neofascist organization of people of above-average intelligence to find the killer. Fans of Alex Delaware will find plenty to like here: fast pace, good local description, and a neat ending.

 A pair of seemingly mismatched detectives are on the hunt for the killer of a D.C. reporter in David Hosp's The Betrayed. While coming from a wealthy and influential family, Elizabeth Chapin chose to live by her own means and it increasingly looks like it got her killed. The detectives, Cassian and Train, team up with Chapin's law-student sister and find that Chapin managed to irritate some high-ranking people with a history in the eugenics movement and a state hospital that was involved with forced sterilizations.  Deeply evocative of Washington politics and environs, this is a highly suspenseful tale. 

Going across the pond and back to the 1930s, there's David Roberts' A Grave Man. After witnessing a murder at a memorial service, detecting partners and sometime romantic interests Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne are tasked by Winston Churchill into looking into a member of the aristocracy who may have Nazi ties. This leads to the south of France and an "Institute of Beauty" where racial hygiene, as eugenics was sometimes called, may be being practiced. Roberts gets the politics and social milieu right, and while the large cast of characters may slow down the action somewhat, there is a wide variety from which to pick the guilty party.  

Have other books we should read about eugenics? Let us know in the comments.

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