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by Bernadette Pajer
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2011
222 pages
ISBN: 159058905X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Bernadette Pajer has set her debut novel in Seattle, 1901, at a time when electricity is still too new for most people to understand much less embrace it. When electricity contributes to a death, the jurors at an inquest wonder why college students are even tinkering with this dangerous new invention.

On the eve of President William McKinley's visit to the University of Washington, where he was to view a demonstration of the students' Electric Machine, the unpopular Professor Oglethorpe has been trapped in the machine's cage and electrocuted. The police immediately focus on Professor Benjamin Bradshaw everyone knows the two men didn't get along. Looking to clear his name, Bradshaw, the narrator, begins his own investigation.

For readers who like historical mysteries, this is an entertaining and informative work about the early days of electricity as well as a neat murder mystery. McKinley did indeed plan to visit Seattle in 1901, but his wife's illness postponed the trip. He never made the visit, since he was assassinated months later by an anarchist (a subplot of A SPARK OF DEATH involves anarchists).

At times, Pajer may give us just a little more information than we need about electricity long explanations of how it works don't make for stimulating reading. But, fortunately, the characters are very engaging, especially Bradshaw, a 35-year-old widower with a young son, an outspoken housekeeper, and a young female guest the niece of a good friend. As the story progresses, we find that Bradshaw, as well as Oglethorpe, kept parts of their lives very private. Pajer does a good job of unveiling, piece by piece, these men's secrets. A SPARK OF DEATH is the first book in a planned Professor Bradshaw series. It will be interesting to see where Bradshaw's investigations take him next.

Lourdes Venard is a newspaper editor in Long Island, N.Y.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, September 2011

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