This was fun. It was a Netgalley selection, so to them I give thanks. As I’ve said before I never know quite what I’m getting with Netgalley books, so it’s a happy thing to find something this good. This is the second book in its series, but was fine to read on its own; enough information was skillfully provided about what went before that I’m only slightly spoiled for the first book, and I definitely want to read it. Score one.
The hero of the series, Professor Ben Bradshaw, is – almost – a typical absent-minded professor. He is obviously brilliant, but not socially adroit; he lives in 1904 Seattle with his eight year old son and their housekeeper, Mrs. Pouty, a tartar if there ever was one: she cares about her charges, and won’t hesitate to prove it by – verbally – beating them about the head and shoulders. On the outskirts of their household is Missouri, the bluestocking niece of an old friend for whom Ben helplessly carries a very bright torch, which for various reasons – not all of which are entirely clear to me – he tries very hard to extinguish.
Into a momentarily placid existence wanders one morning a horse, discovered in the passageway behind the house hitched to a patent medicine seller’s wagon and eating the beans from Mrs. Pouty’s garden. When hours pass without anyone coming to claim the wagon, and when Ben, investigating, discovers a doll and a young girl’s clothing among the possessions still in the wagon, he sees to it that the police enter the picture; a missing child is not something Ben is going to leave lie. Add to his growing obsession with the vanished girl’s welfare stories that begin to circulate about the patent medicine sold from this wagon being poisonous, bringing illness and blindness and perhaps even death, and Ben finds he’s been
dropped into a hornet’s nest.
One aspect of Ben’s situation which makes him very much an atypical professor – and, indeed, an uncommon fictional character – is that one of the things Mrs. Pouty is trying to guard him from is his own alarming tendency to work himself to the point that he blacks out – and it isn’t simply a loss of consciousness. Whether this is something that would happen to anyone who allowed himself to become so engrossed in a project in an occasion of great pressure that he went without food and sleep, or whether it’s something ominous and physical (diabetes, perhaps?) or ominous and mental (some psychological result of the major stresses that he encountered in the first book, which left psychic scars), there is no way to know, but it is an unexpected ingredient thrown into the mix which takes the story on unexpected tangents.
The integration of the time and place and events of the day into the story is beautifully done. The first book of the series involved Ben in a struggle to stop an assassination attempt on President McKinley – something made quite poignant by the shooting of the president early on in this book. The burgeoning science of the day is exciting – it must have been wonderful to be alive a hundred years ago, as miraculous things began to happen through technology and life began to change at a speed that had to be dizzying. This is the era of H.G. Wells, the end of that of Jules Verne – a time when anything, absolutely anything seemed possible. I wish that feeling could be recaptured now. We’re all so jaded …
This is an organic story – by which I mean that while it is distinctly (and well) plotted with a clear story arc, it is also written as part of the main character’s biography. The character of the city comes through in the course of the story: rather than relying on chunks of description to remind you it’s set in 1904 Seattle, Pajer works 1904 Seattle into her storytelling, until the landscape is seamlessly integrated into the characters’ actions and reactions. This would be a very different book if it was set in Sheboygan or Manhattan. Also, what happens to Ben in the course of the story will, it seems, affect later books, as the events of the first one continue to reverberate here. This isn’t always something that happens in series, and the grounding in a solid alternate reality is a good sign.
I enjoyed the children, which is apparently something that isn’t easy to pull off given the sheer number of horribly written children I’ve read. I quickly became surprisingly fond of Ben and all of his family circle. I like this setting, I like this cast of characters, I like this concept – from this example, I like this series. Long may it continue.
- Crime fiction: Seattle-area authors set their mysteries here, there and Cincinnati (seattletimes.nwsource.com)