It can be fun to speculate about nature versus nurture, to consider which of our quirks might be innate and which might have been shaped by where or with whom we grew up. While we’re at it, we can also ponder that well-known question of Shakespearean origin: What’s in a name?
But Shenanigan Swift, the clever and engaging hero of Beth Lincoln’s debut novel, The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels, has recently realized that such musings aren’t so enjoyable anymore. Although Shenanigan’s name earns her a pass when she’s feeling stubborn or has done something an eensy bit destructive (like putting the family cat in the empty coffin before the monthly rehearsal of her aunt’s funeral), it also makes her feel misunderstood when others insist on seeing her solely as an embodiment of her name instead of as an individual.
However, Shenanigan is far from the only Swift with a name that’s both prediction and label. For generations, the Swifts have used their family dictionary to randomly select names that somehow become destinies. Shenanigan’s older sisters are named Phenomena and Felicity, her uncle is Maelstrom, her ancestors include Calamitous and Godwottery (the latter meaning “overly elaborate gardening” or “old-fashioned and affected language”), and the Swift family matriarch is Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude. Hilariously, the aforementioned cat is simply “John the Cat.”
This weekend, Shenanigan will meet even more relatives with dictionary-dictated names, because the Swift family reunion is nigh. Far-flung folks will descend upon the stately yet decrepit Swift House, a 17th-century manor packed with secret doors, the occasional turret and a library that holds both books and booby traps. It’s the perfect setting for the keystone activity of every reunion: the hunt for Grand-Uncle Vile’s long-lost fortune, which Shenanigan is determined to find all by herself. Alas, Shenanigan’s plans are interrupted when someone shoves Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude down the stairs, and other murders soon follow. Amid the ensuing shock and chaos, Shenanigan and Phenomena team up to solve the crimes before anyone else is harmed.
Rife with delicious tension and charmingly dry wit, The Swifts explores and celebrates the wonders of wordplay and the complexity of identity while serving up a compelling murder mystery and a twisty treasure hunt. As Lincoln notes in her introduction, “The thing about language is that it can’t stay still. Restless and impatient, it races forward without waiting for our dictionaries to catch up.” Word nerds will emphatically agree—and they’ll be delighted to know that a sequel is in the works, too.