An illustrious Founding Father adds supersleuth to his resume in McElroy’s (America’s Culture: Its Origins & Enemies, 2016, etc.) well-researched historical novel.
Jacob Maul, a Philadelphia Quaker, has been accused of murder after the body of his housekeeper, Lizzy Coons, was found on his property. An additionally damning complication for Maul—his second wife died under mysterious circumstances several years earlier. Unbeknownst to the Quaker, his greatest hope for acquittal lies with 79-year-old Benjamin Franklin. The beloved public figure, “the greatest man in America after General Washington,” believes in Maul’s innocence. Franklin enlists the assistance of family acquaintance and Revolutionary War veteran James Jamison to investigate Lizzy’s death. Despite his initial reluctance, Jamison is swayed by Franklin’s thoughtful arguments and agrees to take the case. McElroy offers an excellent whodunit, carefully crafting a range of suspects and dolling out numerous red herrings. The Holmes and Watson dynamic is apparent as the elder statesman parses out the clues and lectures on the importance of a method of inquiry. Franklin provides the financial backing and deductive reasoning while the more youthful Jamison spends his days tracking down information and suspects. Jamison is an endearing protagonist and a suitably straight-laced foil for the idiosyncratic Franklin, a Renaissance man with wide-ranging talents and intellect. And while Franklin tends to natter on, McElroy incorporates historical facts without lecturing readers. The depth of McElroy’s research and his background as a scholar is apparent throughout, both in his portrayal of 18th-century Philadelphians and Franklin in particular. McElroy subtly references Franklin’s ingenuity while also illuminating his quirky, appealing personality; for example, Jamison is summoned to a meeting with Franklin while the Founding Father soaks in a bathtub wearing a fur hat.
An entertaining, educational mystery that neatly bridges the gap between fact and fiction.