Fatal Induction by Bernadette Pajer
Fatal Induction by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012) sets up the historical context as the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901. For the people of this time, it was their 9/11. The initial attack spooks the country and then the author deftly switches down a few gears to the case of Ralph’s abandoned wagon. It’s a brave juxtaposition of an internationally significant event thrown into shadow by the apparently trivial. Yet what can be more interesting than have Professor Benjamin Bradshaw, our series amateur detective, consider why the local police should be so dismissive of the disappearance of a man (and his daughter), particularly if he had poisoned innocent buyers with his patent medicines. There’s more than a whiff of corruption in the air and then, of course, the purely theoretical interest becomes rather more practical when our hero discovers the body of the missing Ralph. At a time of national grief, people come to terms with loss in different ways. Some, like the Professor, distract themselves by immersing themselves in whatever tasks are to hand, literally working themselves to a standstill. According to Kübler-Ross, this is denial, the first of five stages.
Bernadette Pajer is playing several different games simultaneously. In the first layer, we have the history of Seattle with a focus on the Tenderloin district. Then we have an introduction to the science of the day. Professor Bradshaw is an electrical engineer, in this case researching the potential uses of the emergent technology for communication purposes. We therefore watch scientific developments as they are being made but, for fun, the author also allows our scientist to speculate on how technology might develop in the future. The idea of a surveillance system that can monitor for specific words is, of course, current reality when it comes to digital messaging systems. One hundred years ago, no-one could possibly envisage how it might be automated. The use of stenographers to make a contemporaneous record of what was said was the first step. Later, the phonograph would be used, but the inability to record at length in wax was always a problem until wire recording systems were developed.
In the final layer, we have an innocent amateur, obviously of the wrong social class, boldly going into the more dangerous Tenderloin area of the city in his search for Ralph’s daughter. Having lost his President, he wants to deal with his grief by saving the girl — arguably, this shows him angry, having moved on to the second stage of grieving. This offers us melodrama and the opportunity to watch the application of the scientific method to the rather more subjective process of investigation. When our scientist has read a book describing the “underworld”, it’s obvious people will not tell him the truth when he asks questions. Indeed, they are more likely to bash him over the head with the nearest blunt instrument. So without the police to back him up, he’s unable to make real progress. Then, the real world intrudes with McKinley’s death and the confirmation Roosevelt will take over as President. This shows Bernadette Payer with a good grasp of narrative dynamics, ensuring the pace of the investigation fits into the historical context. It’s also nice to see gender diversity with Nell “Harry” Pickerell as an active character, and a shrewd move to adopt both the phenacetin investigation and the consequences of the discovery and exploitation of gold in Alaska.
As readers setting off to ride a virtual bicycle through the textual scenery created by the author, we can’t expect to see the world as we imagine it. We have to accept the author’s creative choices. On this ride, we see a plot depending on several outrageous coincidences. This sacrifices some degree of realism so that everyone can get to the right places at the right times for everything to work out as it should. In this instance, I feel we’re getting close to the line but, as the investigation proceeds, the broader context becomes apparent. This is sufficiently interesting that, to some extent, we can gloss over the contrived nature of the set-up. Indeed, the nicely ambiguous title says it all as Professor Bradshaw applies inductive reasoning to get to the answer.
This leaves me with one more issue to discuss. In the Golden Age, the line was more clearly drawn between the detective novel in which a sleuth, over-endowed with little gray cells, would move delicately through the investigation and arrive at a conclusion without ever being in physical danger. The more pot-boiling thrillers would have a mystery element but, to some extent, the puzzle was always subordinated to the action, usually involving the hero fighting his way out of trouble. Today, we’re less interested in maintaining genre boundaries. Instead, we allow our sleuths to “get their hands dirty” while, every now and again, action heroes are allowed to show signs of intelligence (although not too much). This creates a problem of balance for authors. Their series characters will often be born without natural physical fighting skills, but they must survive from one book to the next. So, if these brain-boxes are to be exposed to danger, there must be a credible way in which they can avoid the almost inevitable deaths that loom in their paths. As a hands-on technologist working at the turn-of-the-century, Professor Bradshaw has an engineer’s approach to life. He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get things done. Under normal circumstances, this would be limited to messing with generating equipment and stringing wires. In time, this would spread to applications in the electromagnetic field. That said, we can legitimately see him making excursions into the Tenderloin until warned off. He’s naturally concerned for the missing girl. For the most part, I think Bernadette Pajer gets this right. It’s convenient Bradshaw has help in the latter part of the novel, but the return of the melodrama at the end does grow naturally out of his inability to get the Police involved in time. He’s caught up in the moment and the form of the rescue from danger is consistent with the way in which the technology could have been used.
So, although I confess to wobbling a little on my reading bicycle every now and again, I arrived at the end feeling happy with the journey. Once you accept the basic premise, Fatal Induction is a well-crafted historical mystery novel, posing and answering intriguing questions about murder and divers other possible crimes at a time when technology was propelling America into the future.
For a review of the next book in the series, see Capacity for Murder.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.