Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer
The Classic or Golden Age detective fiction convention is that you have a small group of people in a secluded place to limit the number of suspects. There should be an initial death. The series detective confirms it as a murder and we then follow the investigation through to its usually successful conclusion. If we look back to the time when this style of mystery really took off, the British were recovering from the disaster better known as World War I. In everyday life, a balance had to be struck between the sense of rapid social change and the need for stability. Britain was watching its Empire crumble as a new Communist regime emerged in the East, so it preferred a very predictable form of fiction in which stereotypical characters were drawn together in a puzzle situation and the one with murderous tendencies would be revealed (and executed). The author and the readers had an understanding. The puzzle would be presented in a fair way and the whole book would be entertaining. If the reader should understand the significance of the clues, he or she would beat the detective to the answer and would be delighted. If the reader failed to grasp what was happening but was pleased by the detective’s revelations at the end, the reader was happy. Either way the author emerged the winner in this “contest”.
In a sense, the keys to the Classic or Golden Age Mystery are the quality of the puzzle, the authorial sleight of hand to mislead the reader, and a reasonably fair chance for the reader to be able to crack the case before the detective. This means, of course, that the majority of crime stories written today are following in this tradition. The only differences are that, in most cases, the characters have more psychological depth and there’s a better sense of place for the action. All of which brings us to Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) which is the third mystery featuring Professor Bradshaw. I was particularly pleased with the last book because it represents a collision between history, science and classic detective fiction. This time, the history is less significant an element, but the science and detective elements have stepped up to the mark. Under normal circumstances, the introduction of hard science leaves me wallowing in heavy seas. Sadly my understanding of physics ground to a halt during the 1950s through my complete inability to do the maths. But these books are immediately accessible because I saw some of this technology in action as I was growing up. Both the mechanical and electrical engineering relies on turn-of-the-century technology and, for once, I’m wholly comfortable with it. Indeed, it actually inspires a kind of nostalgia. My grandmother had a copper boiler and still used a posser — a wooden device for agitating the washing while the soapy water heated. She would have benefitted from a scaled-down version of this belt-driven system for washing clothes.
Our hero is called to a distant part of the coast, northwest of Hoquiam, Washington, where death has occurred at the isolated Healing Sands Sanitarium. As part of the “payment” for his services, he’s encouraged to bring family, the man with whom he works as an investigator, and some students whom he’s supposed to be teaching. When they arrive, he discovers that the cause of the death is a machine he had built some years earlier. Electricity has always been thought to have healing properties and this is an early version of what we now call a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machine. He’s fairly quickly able to see how “his” machine was persuaded to become lethal and then it’s down to the process of deciding whodunnit and why. On the way, there’s some particularly fascinating insights into bioluminescence and its relationship to phosphorescence, the significance of sand, and the curious case of the cheese that went missing during the night.
At this point, I have to make a small apology. So far, I’ve been allowing you to assume the mystery does play strictly fair with the reader and, up to a point, that’s true. However, the ultimate solution depends on information Professor Bradshaw ferrets out later in the book. This suggests the motive for the death by electricity and leads to the final stage of the book which moves into straight thriller mode. I’m tempted to make a comparison between the Detective Murdoch novels and both television series based on Maureen Jennings’ characters. Ignoring the straight adaptations of three novels in 2004, Season 1, Episode 1 and Season 3, Episode 13 of the long-running second series involve death by electrocution and feature Nikola Tesla. Although set a few years earlier than the Bradshaw mysteries, both series rely on the appliance of science to arrive at their conclusions. The main difference being that Murdoch and Dr Ogden are principally concerned with forensic science and only incidentally refer to different technologies, whereas the Bradshaw mysteries are more narrowly focussed on electrical and mechanical engineering with only passing reliance of the new investigative techniques of fingerprinting and so on. Indeed, Bradshaw is slightly more cerebral than Murdoch in the way he works out what is most likely to have happened. On balance, I prefer the quality of the puzzles produced by Bernadette Pajer but I think Maureen Jennings is the slightly better writer. There’s a tendency for Ms Pajer to be a little Spartan in delivering the plot. I prefer a little more substance to the prose. That said, Capacity for Murder is a distinctly intriguing murder mystery and well worth picking up.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.