Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thank You, Wimsey: A guest essay from Bernadette Pajer - plus US giveaway

Historical novelists can potentially run into a sticky dilemma when they write about real-life people with living descendants.  Bernadette Pajer's story in this regard is different than the usual, and I hope you'll enjoy her essay about how she was introduced to Professor Joseph M. Taylor of the University of Washington.

Bernadette's fast-paced Professor Bradshaw mystery series, from Poisoned Pen Press, is set amid the academic scientific community in early 20th-century Seattle; The Edison Effect is the fourth and latest volume.  I grew curious about the series not only because I like historical mysteries but because both of my parents are math professors, just like Joseph Taylor.  There also aren't many historical novels that delve into the history of science and technology.  I've already read the first series volume, A Spark of Death (on sale for 99 cents in e-format) and enjoyed not only the mystery plot but also getting to know her protagonist, Professor Bradshaw of the UW, and his lovable son, Justin.  The  details on electrical engineering are fascinating and fully accessible to readers without a science background.

There's a giveaway opportunity to accompany Bernadette's essay, for US-based readers.  One lucky blog reader will receive a signed copy of book 1, A Spark of Death, plus a new copy of her latest, The Edison Effect.  (While each mystery stands alone, the author recommends reading book 1 first for familiarity with the characters and their relationships.)  Fill out the form at the end for a chance to win.
Thank You, Wimsey.
By Bernadette Pajer

I have Lord Peter Wimsey to thank for a true-life character in The Edison Effect. In the wonderful way that all things are connected, Wimsey's enduring popularity led to the Taproot Theater in Seattle putting on a production of Gaudy Night, which led to them hosting a panel of mystery authors to discuss Wimsey and Sayers and mysteries in general, which led to me being a guest, and to a man named George Myers, who is a Taproot board member and mystery fan, being in the audience, which then led to George emailing me about his great-great-grandfather Joseph M. Taylor, who just happened to be the University of Washington's first math professor and first Observatory Director, and who we both soon felt must surely be a good friend of my fictional Professor Bradshaw.

It's weird and wonderful the way fact and fiction can mingle on the page of novels, and also in real life. For many authors and their readers, fictional characters are as real as any flesh-and-blood person. We often know fictional characters better than we know our own families. We're certainly more understanding and tolerant of them. Perhaps it's because we get to see what's in their minds and hearts, helping us better understand their actions. Or perhaps it's because when we tire of them, we can simply close the book and walk away. Although, as Bradshaw's creator, I don't feel I ever truly walk away from him. He's with me the way my child is with me, even when we're separated.

Once George, by way of Wimsey, gave me the gift of his ancestor, I began to research this fascinating fellow. You can see by his photo that he was a likeable sort, gregarious, and outgoing. Quite unlike my reticent, reclusive Professor Bradshaw, and so the perfect mentor for him. I learned that Taylor had the honor of laying the cornerstone on the new campus, July 4, 1894. That building still stands today and is called Denny Hall. In the early days, it was called the Administration Building, and it's where, in the basement laboratories, my Professor Bradshaw works with his electrical engineering students. Those basement labs really existed, by the way, and at the turn of the last century, a dozen or so students worked with what was then an exciting new field, building Tesla coils, wireless transmitters, and dynamo machines (electric generators).

The Professor Bradshaw Mysteries are set more than a hundred years ago. “Seattle in the time of Tesla” is the slug line often used to describe them. This hundred-year gap makes it quite easy for me to sometimes incorporate real people into the stories without fear of retribution or offense. Not that I ever have characters with real-life counterparts do anything wicked, at least not anymore wicked than history recorded them doing. Thomas Edison appears in The Edison Effect. He was easy to characterize since so much has been written about him, and I enjoyed revealing his lesser-known dark side.

But characterizing Joseph Taylor was different. He wasn't someone I plucked from the history books, he was given to me by his very own great-great grandson. Taylor's descendants would be reading this book and my characterization of their relative. While I could have been intimidated by this, I wasn't. There was just something about Taylor's smile, the crinkle of his eyes, that told me he would get a kick out of being featured in a traditional whodunit. His smile let me relax and enjoy myself. I learned he was an author himself, with several non-fiction books to his credit, including The History and Government of Washington, published in 1898. He was a Freemason and an Odd Fellow, and he dedicated much of his life to helping improve the lives of others. I think I would have liked Professor Taylor very much. I know Professor Bradshaw is grateful to count him as a friend and mentor, just as I'm grateful to now count his great-great grandson George Myers, as a new yet already dear friend.

The UW's Jacobsen Observatory, site of the author's book launch on 9/27
(Professor's Taylor's descendants will be in attendance)

Bernadette Pajer's Professor Bradshaw Mysteries have been called "deft, highly entertaining" by Publishers Weekly and "a great series" by the Portland Review of Books. She's a University of Washington graduate, and a proud member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Northwest Science Writers, the Washington Academy of Sciences, and the Research is her favorite activity, and she happily delves into Pacific Northwest history and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw's investigations.

Twitter: @BradshawMystery

NOTE: The giveaway is now over.  Congratulations to Mary C, and thanks to all who entered!

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