The Swifts by Beth Lincoln

The Blurb On The Back:

On the day they are born, each Swift is brought before the ancient Family Dictionary.

They are given a name and a definition, and it is assumed they will grow up to match.

Meet Shenanigan Swift …

She has other ideas.

Shenanigan Swift doesn’t believe in destiny

So what if her relatives all think she’s fated to be a troublemaker, just because of her name?  Shenanigan knows she can be whatever she wants – pirate, explorer, or ever detective.

Which is lucky, really, because when one of the Family tries to murder Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude, someone has to work out whodunnit.

With the help of her sisters and cousin, Shenanigan grudgingly takes on the case, but more murders, a hidden treasure, and an awful lot of suspects make things seriously complicated.

Can Shenanigan catch the killer before the whole household is picked off?  And in a Family where definitions are so important, can she learn to define herself?

THE SWIFTS was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd February 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE SWIFTS by Beth Lincoln from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

The Swift family has a long and distinguished heritage that goes back hundreds of years, back to the days of tights-and-doublets but their prosperity and success began when they decided to start naming their children using the Family Dictionary and since then, they’ve never looked back.

The current head (called the Matriarch) of the family – Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude – lives in the Swift Family House, which was built in 1602 and is filled with booby traps, hidden passages and all manner of other secrets and is set in extensive grounds that includes a lake.  Also living there are Cook (the house chef who’s treated as part of the family), Maelstrom (a former sailor who is writing his memoirs) and Maelstrom’s nieces – 14-year-old Felicity (the eldest who likes fashion and making clothes); Phenomena (a budding scientist who carries out experiments in her bedroom); and Shenanigan (the youngest, who always seems to get into trouble).  The sisters all live there because their parents travel the world exploring archaeological sites.  They haven’t seen them in over a year and only get postcards from them every few months.

Every year the majority of the family gathers at the Swift Family House to search for Vile’s Hoard. This was a vast treasure acquired by their ancestor Vile Swift, who inherited half the House on the death of his father, Mazzard, and then murdered his brother Gramercy in order to inherit his half.  The Hoard disappeared after Vile’s death but everyone was certain that it had to be in the House and Vile’s sister Cantrip instigated an annual gather of the Family to search the House and grounds to find it.

For the last year, Shenanigan has been preparing for the Family Reunion by been mapping the house, tracking the traps and hunting out its secrets.  Even though she’s not sure what she’d do with the Hoard once she finds it, she is completely determined to do so, if only to prove that just because she’s called Shenanigan, doesn’t mean that she will always be in trouble.

This year, though, the Reunion does not go as planned.  Even though the Family Archivist, Aunt Inheritance, has planned events down to the minute, there’s trouble when Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude announces that she will be stepping down as Matriarch and appointing a successor in three days, swiftly followed by her not only refusing to bless the engagement of Candour Swift (a doctor with a penchant for bad puns) and Daisy DeMille (a wealthy heiress from New York) but actually forbidding it altogether.  Not long after that someone tries to murder Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude by pushing her down the stairs and the Family members discover that someone has locked the gates to the estate and damaged their cars to stop them from escaping.  

With Schadenfreude unconscious and unable to identify the culprit, Aunt Inheritance takes over as acting head of the family and asks Gumshoe Swift (a private detective) to investigate.  It’s pretty clear to Shenanigan, however, that Gumshoe is an idiot and it’s up to her to work out who tried to murder Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude and why.  Helped by her sisters, her non-binary cousin Erf and identical twin grown-ups Flora and Fauna, Shenanigan balances her investigation with searching for the Hoard, but the more she digs into her family, the more secrets she uncovers and it’s not long before more members of the Family fall victim to the killer …

Beth Lincoln’s crime novel for readers aged 9+ (the first in a series) is a gloriously quirky affair filled with murder, mayhem and nominative determinism and illustrated by Claire Powell with spiky vim.  It has a vibe of The Addams Family as re-imagined by Wes Anderson with Lincoln injecting humour and heart into the plot as well as villainy and deception.  It’s one of the best children’s debuts I’ve read and I will definitely check out the next book.

Shenanigan is a really well imagined character.  Constantly in trouble and with a penchant for revenge, she’s determined and sharp and has a gift for spotting when people are lying but at the same time is worried that her name has doomed her to a life of always being blamed for things and she misses her parents, who’d rather explore the world than spend time with her and her sisters.  The relationship she has with her sisters is well done (especially Phenomena, who by turns tolerates and assists her investigation) as is her relationship with Uncle Maelstrom, which takes an interesting turn when she realises that he is lying to her about something.

The whole family is a quirky delight and although broadly drawn, are deliciously entertaining.  I particularly enjoyed Gumshoe’s habit of narrating events that he’s witnessing like a dime store detective and the flamboyant Pamplemousse who behaves like an 18th century French  aristocrat.  But the family isn’t all charm and humour, Shenanigan spots the malice in rich relatives Atrocious and Pique and the scenes in the final quarter where the Family turn on one person they decide must be the culprit is sharply observed.  It’s also a book that also features lightly worn diversity, from the non-binary Erf to the inclusion of a transgender character (a point dropped in very casually and all the better for it).

Special mention must be made of Claire Powell’s glorious illustrations that reminded me a lot of Charles Addams work as she depicts the various family members and scenes but also does the chapter headings that I absolutely adored.

The plot itself unfurls at a fair trot with Lincoln packing in a lot of action and numerous plot strands.  Although I had guessed the culprit relative early on, I think the way it’s handled is very smooth and effective.  Nominative determinism is a big part of the book – Aunt Inheritance swears by it, Shenanigan is worried by it and Felicity is looked down on for having a “normal” name.  The way Powell makes clear that your name is not who you are is well handled and subtle and there are strong themes here of the importance of family and taking care of each other.

I did have some quibbles, the biggest of which is that the Swift Family were apparently using a dictionary to pick their names 150 years before the dictionary was invented.  I also wanted a bit more on when the book is set, purely because of how the Family gets trapped in the House didn’t ring true in an age of internet and felt a bit contrived.

That said, this book was absolutely up my street.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the Swifts and look forward to reading more of their adventures in future books (particularly Erf who has a lot of potential).  This is genuinely one of the best debut children’s novels I have read in years and I think that Lincoln is a real talent to watch.  

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