Culture, Literature and the Arts '03
Bernadette Pajer pens a historical mystery set in UW electrical engineering lab
It’s the spring of 1901, and a UW electrical engineering professor lies dead in the basement of Denny Hall, found inside a mysterious contraption built as part of a student exhibition.
The colleague who discovered the body is soon both the prime suspect and the lead investigator trying to solve the case.
It’s not history, but a newly published mystery novel, written by UW Bothell graduate Bernadette Pajer and set more than a century ago on the UW campus. Though the story is fictional, the details of the setting, the time period and the technology are real.
The story’s protagonist is Benjamin Bradshaw, a widower, father and professor of electrical engineering. The victim is an older colleague, Professor Wesley Oglethorpe, whose many enemies include colleagues and students. The fast-paced whodunit is a romp across the UW campus, the Seattle region and American politics at the turn of the century.
Pajer, a first-time published author, had tried her hand at contemporary and historical romances when, about a decade ago, she thought up the setting for A Spark of Death.
She is a 2003 graduate of UW Bothell’s Culture, Literature and the Arts program. But she says she knew that Bradshaw had to be a UW professor of electrical engineering. (It may not be entirely coincidental that her husband is a foreman working on power lines.) She also knew the story had to take place at the beginning of the 20th century.
“It was the most revolutionary time in electrical engineering,” Pajer says. “Everything was happening at this time. You had inventors, and engineers, in laboratories in basements, launching us into the modern age. And I just find that very exciting.”
The storyline blends mystery and historical fact in a frontier Seattle. The action takes place in what is now known as Denny Hall, then simply the UW’s Administration Building (Denny Hall was the name of the auditorium).
The university at that time had a very young president, 32-year-old Frank Graves, who is modeled on the actual historical figure.
Pajer’s descriptions of students draw on her experience as a UW engineering student in the early 1980s. After two years Pajer decided to leave engineering, but she still enjoys learning about technology.
“I’m fascinated by science,” Pajer said. “I love looking things up and figuring out exactly how it ticks. And I love all the old inventions.”
Pajer says she tries not to weigh down the story with historical detail, but she makes sure that all the details in the story are correct so readers will feel immersed in the time and place. Bradshaw's friend, for example, works at a construction site for the re-grading of Denny Hill. A pivotal scene takes place on a tour of the Snoqualmie Falls Electrical Power Plant, then newly built.
After completing a first draft largely from imagination, Pajer visited the UW Libraries’ Special Collections and discovered that the local historical facts matched the story’s details surprisingly well. The UW did, in fact, have an engineering department in 1901. A yearbook shows that students did put on an exhibition in the spring of 1901 that included a Tesla coil. President McKinley had planned a visit to Seattle that was cancelled due to his wife’s illness.
In Special Collections she went through boxes containing former professors’ belongings. She found a map showing Seattle complete with streetcar lines from the period; her photocopy is now dog-eared from use.
Writing the book also involved extensive research on electrical theory and history. She visited Bellingham’s American Museum of Radio & Electricity to see Leyden Jars, static electricity machines and early Tesla coils firsthand. From antique stores and used bookstores she built up a personal collection of old textbooks.
“Electricity was so new then that when they wrote an instruction manual for somebody it was explicit,” Pajer said. “They were so graphic in their descriptions, it’s fantastic.”
Pajer even used Google Books search to look up specific questions, such as: ‘When was creosote first used as a preservative on power poles?’ or to check how scientists at that time would carry out a certain procedure.
“Because my setting is so long ago, everything is in the public domain,” Pajer said. “I can get my hands on the same books that Professor Bradshaw had his hands on.”
The book features electricity both for Bradshaw’s profession and as key plot elements. After the book had been accepted for publication, Pajer gave a draft to Bill Beaty, a research engineer in the UW’s chemistry department who in his spare time writes a website for science hobbyists, for scientific fact-checking.
“It’s excellent,” Beaty said of the book, which gets his technical and literary seal of approval.
“Characters who would be called terrorists now were called anarchists back then,” he said. “Instead of Bradshaw having a brother that’s involved in crackpot Internet scams, he has a friend who’s involved in crackpot gold-prospecting scams. It’s showing that all the ancient themes repeat – everything that’s old is new again.”
A Spark of Death is the first installment in the planned Professor Bradshaw series. The next book, which is due out next summer, has already been written and takes place in the fall of 1901. The plot involves a missing peddler's child and a burgeoning telephone technology.
As the series progresses, Bradshaw will keep his day job at the UW, but he will continue to solve mysteries. His son will hang up a placard for “Forensic Electrical Engineer,” and Bradshaw will be called on to investigate incidents involving electricity and to determine whether the incident was an accident or involved foul play. He also will develop a reputation for solving crimes, and local police will occasionally call on him to help with investigations.
The full arc of the 15-book series will span the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, World War I and other events in political and technical history.
“I always want to feature a different electrical technology that’s on the cusp,” Pajer said, “and what’s going on in the world at the time, and most importantly, make it a good story.”
A Spark of Death was published in 2011 by Poisoned Pen Press and distributed by Ingram. The book is available at locations including the University Book Store, the UW Libraries, the Seattle Public Library, and online.
– Story by Hannah Hickey, UW News and Information
Evaluate your strengths and weakness, and then work on the weaknesses…Bernadette Pajer