The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer
The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is the fourth Professor Bradshaw mystery and follows on in September 1903, just a few days after the end of the excitement in the last episode. His courage has firmed and he’s about to propose to Missouri Fremont when Edison arrives to quiz him about the electrical device Oscar Daulton had created to kill President McKinley. Partly out of an excess of moral scruples, Bradshaw refuses to disclose his thoughts on how the machine might have worked. He contents himself by confirming it lost at sea. Unable to get anything useful, Edison leaves and we quickly skip forward to December 9, 1903 with Bradshaw agonising over what to do about Missouri. After loving her from afar for two years, he’s made the right noises about marriage (his first wife having committed suicide). In return, she’s tasked him with coming up with a plan to reconcile his desire for marriage with her wish to qualify as a homeopathic physician. She’s due back in a week and he’s done little to clarify his thoughts. Adding to the problem is his Catholicism. This will be a second marriage — he has a ten-year-old son — and he feels obliged to seek guidance on the Church’s rules about “mixed marriages”. For better or worse, his deliberations are interrupted by the arrival of Henry Pratt. It seems the electrician at the Bon Marché store has been electrocuted by some of Edison’s new Christmas Lights.
Thematically, we therefore have the opportunity to explore the social issues of the day from courtship rituals to the question of female emancipation, from the control exercised by religion over peoples’ lives to the predatory nature of some rich men who seek to further enrich themselves, from honest toil with proper rewards to exploited salaried employees expected to work eighteen hours a day, child labour, and so on. As in previous books, the historical detail is fascinating. Then we have the meticulous set-up of the death by electricity and the scorching of the handkerchief in the shop window lights, and prepare ourselves for deep sea diving. This is all done with great skill as the detail including cutting-edge technology from one-hundred years ago is gently introduced and explained. It’s surprising to find some of the innovations, e.g. timer switches and alarm systems, in operation. I’d tended to think such developments came later. After all, when I began taking an intelligent interest in the world, the 1950s were still using mechanical and pneumatic systems for moving cash around stores with the applications for electricity still somewhat limited. This nicely researched history of technology is a genuine eye-opener on just how advanced we were at the turn of the last century (even showing how to make a toasted cheese sandwich).
In earlier reviews I’ve been impressed by the quality of the mysteries, but slightly less satisfied by the quality of the prose. This time around, the author has significantly improved, fleshing out the more minimalist style into a more richly descriptive style. This helps give the relationship between Bradshaw and his son a great deal more emotional substance, particularly when they discuss his wife’s suicide. The mystery itself also proves to be a nice piece of misdirection with the waters in the store muddied and distracting us from the “big picture”. Although mostly unseen, the presence of both Edison and Tesla looms large and provides a context for some ingenious manoeuvres as the interested parties try to maximise their opportunity to profit from Oscar Daulton’s work. Watching Bradshaw resist the temptation to exploit his knowledge of matters electrical and solve the puzzle of this “murder weapon” is pleasing. No matter how weak or strong his Catholicism, the Professor remains a moral man who struggles to maintain his values in a world partly corrupted by greed and the desire for profit at any cost. This leaves me thinking The Edison Effect significantly better than the last in the series and hopefully evidence this is an author who will continue to develop her craft and go on to great things. The only other mystery left to solve is now how to fly, but that’s for another history book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.