Review: Matthew Pearl's latest historical adventure — The Technologists — is set in and around Boston just after the Civil War, and centers about the first graduating class of the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The book opens with the first of a number of inexplicable events that have descended upon Boston. Experienced captains piloting their ships into the harbor suddenly find their instruments showing misleading, even wrong, data. "The needle of the steering compass, held under glass by the wheel, spun around violently, as if bedeviled …" But before they can react to them, a chain-reaction of collisions destroy seven ships, sinking three. Sabotage is quickly ruled out, but no one can proffer an alternate, reasonable explanation. The mayor, however, is concerned about an even greater public relations disaster, one that could financially cripple the city as a major trading port. Later, another mystery hits the city: Windows are melting. "[G]lass had simply come to a decision to melt, and the decision was unanimous, apparently, for every piece of glass up and down the street, in windows and spectacles and on clock faces, started to melt."
Though probably not intentional on the part of the author — or maybe just a little bit — much of The Technologists is reminiscent of the early Harry Potter books. There are a bunch of wizards (engineers), who must prove themselves by performing miraculous tasks in order to receive recognition from their superiors (those that financed the school and took a chance on promoting the education of science and technology in a city that prides itself on the arts and humanities) and more importantly, at least to them, their academic peers (the cultural elite, who of course attend Harvard). Quidditch is replaced with sculling (rowing). There's even MIT's equivalent of Hermione Granger, one Ellen Swallow, the only female student at the Institute. "You know the reputation of the place," says Boston Chief of Police John Kurtz, assigned to investigate and solve the mysteries. "Their sciences are seen as practically pagan. Just speaking to [the students of the Institute] will draw fire against us." The fantasy element comes from the mysterious events that have taken place in the harbor and along the streets of Boston, and to which the "technologists" must apply their magic … err, intellect.
Despite the near constant sense of action and activity, The Technologists isn't a fast-reading novel. It has a number of extended backstories, subplots and other narrative diversions that add background, depth and interest to the storyline, thus rendering it more typical of classical literature than modern thriller. Those readers willing to be patient with all of it will be rewarded with a most entertaining, if slightly extraordinary, tale.
Acknowledgment: Random House provided a copy of The Technologists for this review.
Review Copyright © 2012 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Last Dickens
Random House (Trade Paperback), October 2009
ISBN-13: 9780812978025; ISBN-10: 0812978021
Location(s) referenced in The Technologists: Boston, Massachusetts
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The Technologists by Matthew Pearl
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 2012
List Price: $26.00
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Page Author: Lance Wright
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