Author: John Harmon McElroy

Publisher: Penmore Press, 2017

ISBN-13: 978-1-946409-10-2 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-946409-11 (e-book)

It would be interesting to know what today’s schoolchildren learn about Benjamin Franklin, the publisher and statesman who defined America and exemplified what it meant to be an American in the 18th century. To those of us educated in the 1940s, his inventiveness (lightning, keys and kites) was more palpable than his signature on the Declaration of Independence, which we took for granted. A new book that crosses genres will revive our interest in the inventor of subscription libraries, energy efficient stoves, spectacles, and swimmers’ flippers. Lucky for us, that Franklin’s scientific brilliance and sense of moral justice should lead him to become a detective seemed natural to John McElroy. After a distinguished career writing academic tomes, the Professor Emeritus of American Literature at The University of Arizona has turned out his riveting and instructive first novel in the Benjamin Franklin mystery series.

Here Franklin still is curious, imaginative, and methodical. He remains opinionated, opposed to slavery, and dedicated to national unity. But he is an old man with troublesome gout, finalizing his report on his years as Ambassador to France. Philadelphia, though large and important, is yet a pretty rough and tumble place. Franklin is less able physically to engage in public debate. When he becomes troubled by the arrest of a Quaker stonecutter for the murder of two women in his own household, he engages Captain James Jamison, a wounded war veteran, as his “leg man.” We readers are as flies on the wall when Franklin, holed up in his study, explains to the much younger James his intentions and methods of absolving an honorable man of horrible crimes.

All of the deplorable evidence points to Jacob Maul. But it isn’t very much. Still, Jacob seems to have no defenders and, worse, his family have been ostracized by their religion. Following logic that could be called Sherlockian, and moral reasoning that challenges our lackadaisical, 21st century agnosticism, Franklin persuades James of the importance of their task. He is determined to make things right, which means protecting the innocent as well as delivering the appropriate punishment for the crimes committed. He anticipates the limitations of mere law and order, choosing instead to invoke moral understanding. In this way, the book forces the reader beyond reason to faith or, if not faith, to introspection.

Even without these sober thoughts, the story is worth very close attention for its impressions of the difficult founding of our country. In the plotting of the errands assigned to the captain, we gain insights to American intellectual history, the history of medicine, of invention, of religion, and of women’s roles in society. We find out who had what kinds of jobs; we experience the lay of the land and modes of transportation; we see the furnishings of households in contrasting layers of the domestic economy. James, whose family business is glassmaking, follows all the loose threads, staying in communication with his mentor by foot messenger or, by leaving pouches in a hidden nook near the alley gate. This cloak and dagger collaboration keeps a lively pace between lengthy (and rather one-sided) conversations. Meanwhile, romance blooms for widower James in his own household, humanizing the soldier and making him worthy of popular fiction.

But a beach read this is not. You will keep this mystery on your history shelf, for Professor McElroy is painstaking in his depiction of the period, its physical appearance and, most significant at this moment, its ideas, which he has researched and transmitted over decades of teaching and of living a patriot’s life, which has included his family planting 500 redwood trees in Spain to commemorate the voyage of Columbus to America.