A Spark of Death by Bernadette Pajer

1901, Seattle, Washington. At the University of Washington, a Faraday cage has been constructed to demonstrate to the visiting President McKinley the wonder of the newly-discovered electricity. The essential part of the Faraday cage is that someone inside it is completely safe from the mildly (but not lethally) dangerous electricity outside it. So how did the universally-disliked Professor Oglethorpe end up inside the cage, fried to a crisp? Are there anarchists on the loose in Seattle or is the murderer much closer to home? Professor Benjamin Bradshaw, a rival to Oglethorpe and a man not without his own secrets, is the prime suspect, so what better way to clear your name than to investigate the murder yourself?

Following on from The Square Root of Murder, featuring a Mathematics professor, we now have a Physics professor as the sleuth. But does this debut novel have the potential to spawn a sequel? Can it compete with other current books in the genre? Or will it meet with some stiff resistance?

[That’s it for the electricity puns in case you were planning on throwing something at your screen]

This is the first book to be released by Bernadette Pajer, who was nice enough to thank me in advance for the review, when I announced it as the Washington leg of my Mystery Tour of the USA. I know very little about Bernadette, but if you want to know more, then there’s a very interesting interview over at the Poe’s Deadly Daughters blog.

I wasn’t supposed to be reading this book just yet. I’m doing a joint review of Cat of Many Tails with Patrick from At The Scene of the Crime, but I’d left it at home and needed something to pass the time while I kept an eye on the canteen for twenty minutes at school the other morning. Luckily I keep my Kindle on me – the smaller one is very usefully sized for people who wear jackets all the time – and I’d happened to purchase this book based on a positive review in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It ticked a few boxes for me – historical, new author, new state – and sounded rather interesting. So, was it?

I’ve thought long and hard about how to sum up my feelings on this book. I’ll try and articulate them properly, but put it this way. Cat of Many Tails remained half-read for a while because this book is simply superb.

The plot is intriguing – it gives a nice balance between the two possible scenarios – anarchists vs a personal motive – and it does keep you guessing to the end. There are a couple of lovely red herrings, one in particular that stood out for me – no spoilers, though.

The characters leap off the page – Bradshaw in particular. Much as I said for Kate Shugak in A Cold Day for Murder, he is somewhat scarred from events in his past but this isn’t the defining character trait. His baggage is part of the story, but is kept in proportion and, in fact, is rather interesting. The other characters are also well-drawn and Pajer has made sure that there a number of characters who have credible motives and opportunities for the murder.

And the science? Well, I think this is the masterstroke. If this had been set in the present day – Death in the Large Hadron Collider would be a similar scenario, I guess – then the science would have been baffling. I mentioned in my review of The Square Root of Murder how inevitably the mathematics had to be dumbed down for the reader. Look at The Big Bang Theory – the number of times that talking about high-level science is treated as a joke. Now that show makes sure that the science is actually correct, but I imagine it goes over a lot of peoples’ heads. They never use the science as a plot point.

By setting the book in the past, the science is ground-breaking for the characters in the book but is explainable to the reader. Having said that, it’s still decent science and I think most people would learn something from it, but it enhances the book wonderfully.

Is there anything negative to say about this book? I suppose the clues are a little minimal, but that’s true of a lot of authors. The only other thing I can think of is that so far, this is the only book in the series – and indeed by the author – but there is another coming in May.

Anyway, to sum up. This book is as good as any new mystery novel that I’ve read since starting this blog and better than most. Very highly recommended.

Now go out and buy it!

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Bernadette Pajer, Historical Fiction Challenge, Historical Mysteries, Mystery Tour of the USA, Professor Bradshaw. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Spark of Death by Bernadette Pajer

  1. That sounds great Steve – with recommendations like that it is going straight on the TBR pile! I had the same thoughts about the use of ‘new’ science in the past when reading Christopher Priest’s THE PRESTIGE, which admittedly gets a bit metaphysical after a point (and in this respect varies quite significantly from the Christopher Nolan film version) but which provides a fascinating depiction of the way electricity changed people and the world they lived in.

  2. The novel of the PRESTIGE does get a bit weird… I mean metaphysical. I can see why they changed it for the film – which I absolute love, by the way. Even if I did see the main clever bit after about fifteen minutes…

  3. I can see right now that having decided to follow you is going to wreck havoc with my TBR piles. You have now pushed two of my mystery-reading buttons–academic and historical. And your great review makes me want to go get it right now. (Well…maybe not right now, since I’m sick and on the couch and don’t do electronic books….but as close to now as possible.)

  4. Don’t be sorry…I love seeing academic mystery reviews. And this one does sound like a winner. In fact, in my first venture out of the house today (since Thursday)–groceries must be had somehow–I made a quick stop by the library to pick up a hold…and brought home A Spark of Death!

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