Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Benjamin Franklin Solves a Murder: Guest post by John Harmon McElroy

John Harmon McElroy, author of Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Murders (Penmore Press, 2017) is a professor emeritus of the University of Arizona, where he created and taught a course called Literature of the Early Republic that included Franklin's Autobiography. In addition to Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Murders, the first novel in a series featuring Benjamin Franklin as a detective, McElroy has authored four books on American cultural history and has been a Fulbright Professor of American Studies at universities in Spain and Brazil. (More at www.benfranklindetective.com

John Harmon McElroy:
Benjamin Franklin Solves A Murder 

Sometimes a work of fiction can be a more effective way of conveying truth than a history book. Biographers are committed to representing the reality of history. Writers of historical fiction have the somewhat different goal of creating the illusion of a past experience. Through my mystery novel I give readers not only “a tale that becomes more intriguing as it progresses,” but also an experience of Benjamin Franklin, the most versatile genius in that remarkable group known as America's Founders.

But, you might ask, why did I choose the form of a murder mystery as a way of portraying Franklin? Aside from being a lifelong fan of mysteries myself, it seemed to me that a mystery would be the best way to provide a close-up view of Franklin – his modus operandi, his genius, his charm, his altruism. Also, I’m convinced that more and more readers will come to admire and appreciate Franklin when they meet him “in person,” readers who might not be inclined to pick up a history book but who do enjoy a mystery that “pull[s] you forward, page by page.”

In his life Franklin did many different things. There was nothing that caught his interest that he didn’t engage with in depth. Have a kite you’re flying on the banks of a mile-wide pond? – Why not see if your kite can pull you across? (It did – and as a boy Benjamin Franklin became the first windsurfer!) Curious about the powerful ocean current known as the Gulf Stream? – Why not take temperatures to locate its eastward-moving power to speed the passage of ships to Europe? (In his eight Atlantic crossings Franklin made the first systematic study of the Gulf Stream.) Think you and your fellow tradesmen could benefit from access to more books than you can individually afford? – Why not convince the members of your club to pool their money to buy books? (Thus inventing the lending library.) And always, in pursuing his interests, he had some practical result in mind.

Franklin was also an internationally famous diplomat. His ability to charm the French into supporting the American Revolution during his nine years at the court of Louis the Sixteenth made possible the military aid – supplies, and French troops and warships – that was vital to securing U.S. independence from Britain. Then, at the war's end, he negotiated the peace settlement (the Treaty of Paris), which defined the boundaries of the United States of America.

But it was Franklin’s achievements as a world-class scientist that made me see him as a detective. After all, a detective’s procedures in gathering clues and drawing conclusions are similar to those a scientist employs in making observations and formulating a testable hypothesis about a phenomenon of nature.

In Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Murders, all these characteristics, and more, come into play, including Franklin’s spectacular lapse of judgment in the story’s climactic showdown. (He wasn’t perfect.)

The mystery unfolds in the City of Brotherly Love when it was the largest English-speaking city in the world after London. Franklin has just come back from France only to find that Jacob Maul, the Quaker stonecutter who laid the foundations for his mansion, Franklin Court, has been jailed on suspicion of having strangled his housekeeper. A lot of circumstantial evidence points to Maul's guilt. After all, this is the second female corpse with bruise marks to the throat that has turned up on his property. But Franklin's knowledge of Maul’s character, and his noticing a coincidence that everyone else has overlooked, convince him of the Quaker's innocence.

However, in 1785 Franklin is 79 and must recruit a younger man to do the legwork for the investigation. Franklin requires a man of honor to be his assistant to keep his role secret, lest Franklin acquire an unwanted reputation for fixing his neighbors’ problems. We see Franklin’s diplomatic skills unfurl as he attempts to persuade Capt. James Jamison, a wounded veteran of the just-concluded American Revolution, to collaborate with him. Franklin’s humor, his positive outlook on life, and his bonhomie emerge and are on display throughout.

During the ins and outs of the investigation, Franklin also demonstrates the skill in making deductions from physical evidence that allowed him to solve some of the basic mysteries concerning the nature of electricity. This accomplishment prompted Scotland’s St. Andrews University to confer an honorary doctor’s degree on him. After that honor in 1759, this youngest son of a Boston candle maker, who only had two years of formal schooling, was always addressed as “Dr. Franklin.”

The secondary characters in this historical mystery, and the mystery itself, are fictional. But the details about Franklin’s life, interests, and achievements are true. Many readers say I’ve succeeded in providing an experience of Franklin and his times through a story that makes the reader “anxious to find out what happened.” One reader wrote, “I [saw] the total picture in my head of Franklin and the time period […], and I lived it as I would if watching a PBS Masterpiece Mystery. May I have another?”

You may! Benjamin Franklin and the Innocent Duelist, the next narrative in the “Benjamin Franklin, Detective” series, is written and should be out in time for Xmas.

1 comment:

Mike Gora said...

Thanks for posting this. I was fairly convinced that I would buy this after reading the article, but then I saw that it had only 4- and 5-star ratings on Amazon and that clinched it for me. It's rare to see a book that no one had even a mediocre dislike of.