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The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer

August 9, 2014 3 comments

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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.

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

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.

For a review of the last two books in the series, see:
Capacity for Murder
Fatal Induction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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Capacity for Murder by Bernadette Pajer

March 30, 2013 4 comments

Capacity for Murder

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.

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

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.

For reviews of two other books in the series, see:
The Edison Effect
Fatal Induction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Fatal Induction by Bernadette Pajer

February 2, 2012 1 comment

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.

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

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 two other books in the series, see:
Capacity for Murder
The Edison Effect.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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