New mystery novel set at Jacobsen Observatory

The University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the setting for some of the scenes in a new mystery novel from local author Bernadette Pajer. A celebration of the release of The Edison Effect, the fourth title in Pajer’s series of Professor Bradshaw mysteries, was held recently at the observatory.

Pajer’s protagonist Benjamin Bradshaw is a fictional professor of electrical engineering at the UW and solver of mysteries involving electricity. Seattle needs his expertise; the books are set in the early 1900s, and electricity is still something of a puzzle to people and the police. The tagline for the series is “Seattle in the time of Tesla.”

“It’s a very exciting time period to research,” Pajer says, “not only the city where I was born and raised, all of those details, but the scientific history, where we came from and how quickly.”

A happy coincidence brought Professor Bradshaw to the Jacobsen Observatory. In 2012 Pajer participated in a panel discussion about mysteries at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle, which was performing a stage version of the Dorothy Sayers story Gaudy Night. One of the people who attended the event was George Myers, whose great-great-grandfather was Joseph Taylor, the UW’s first math professor and first director of the observatory. After the discussion Myers emailed a photo of Taylor to Pajer.

Joseph Taylor

Joseph Taylor, the first director of the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, is a character in Bernadette Pajer’s new mystery novel The Edison Effect.

“I just knew instantly when I saw that photo that professor Bradshaw knows this guy, and, not only that, they’re friends, so I wove him into The Edison Effect,” Pajer says. She notes that no astronomy happens in the book, but several key scenes occur at the observatory.

Myers and other relatives of Taylor attended the book launch at the observatory, and enjoyed learning a few new things that Pajer’s research turned up about their ancestor. For example, Taylor laid the cornerstone at Denny Hall, which was the first building on the current UW campus, known then as the Administration Building. Its basement is where Professor Bradshaw has his electricity lab. Interestingly, the Jacobsen Observatory was constructed of materials left over from the building of Denny Hall.

“It was fun!” Pajer says of the launch event. “I had the ghost of Bradshaw, and the real ghost of Joseph Taylor that were at the observatory. It was a really cool way that fact and fiction were mingling.”

The character of Bradshaw came to Pajer in part because of her own interest in science. She studied civil engineering at the UW, but dropped out to get married. Twenty years later she went back and earned an interdisciplinary degree in culture, literature, and the arts at UW Bothell.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It just turned out that I was much better at writing about science than actually doing it,” Pajer says, adding that she finds it fascinating to blend art and science. “I think it makes it more entertaining. Peer science can often be very dry, but when you can present it in an entertaining way, it’s a great way to learn.”

Pajer takes pride in the scientific accuracy of her books. She consults experts during her research and writing, and the volumes have earned the stamp of approval after peer review by the Washington Academy of Sciences. She also works hard to get the historical details of Seattle and the UW right.

The first book in the Professor Bradshaw series was A Spark of Death, published in 2011, followed by Fatal Induction in 2012, Capacity for Murder in 2013, and then The Edison Effect this year. Pajer is just beginning to noodle on her next story, which she thinks may be set in 1907 at the time of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

The books are great for lovers of mysteries and science. Check ’em out!

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