Bernadette Pajer Guest Post: Nowadays

Novel Reaction is excited to welcome author Bernadette Pajer.

Seattle author Bernadette Pajer is a graduate of the Interdisciplinary Arts and Science program of the University of Washington, Bothell. Publisher’s Weekly called Pajer’s A SPARK OF DEATH, The First Professor Bradshaw Mystery,  a “deft, highly entertaining debut” and Judith Reveal of the NY Journal of Books said A SPARK OF DEATH is a “breathless journey from beginning to end.” Research is Pajer’s favorite activity, and she happily delves into Seattle’s past and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw’s investigations.


Nowadays children have no respect for their parents. Nowadays, it’s not safe to be on the streets at night. Nowadays, you’re better off burying your money in the backyard. I always sigh when I hear someone belittle nowadays, and laugh when they glorify the past. Oh, it’s true each stretch of time had its good qualities we wish we’d retained. Like dressing up. Nowadays (oops, did it myself), people think nothing of going to the store wearing old sweats and slippers. It used to be folks dressed nice whenever they went out in public. Heck, even the bums on the street in the 1920’s wore suits! Not clean suits, but still.

There are two things I always remind myself about nowadays and back-then. One is the tendency societies have to, if you’ll pardon a cliché, throw the baby out with the bath water. For instance, the expectations of proper dress could be extremely oppressive, especially for women. Dressing the part of the dutiful housewife June Cleaver-style signified the proper place of a mother in the home, keeping a perfect house, serving a husband. For many women, this was not a dream but a nightmare of unfulfilled ambition buried under an endless pile of dishes. Along came the 60’s and 70’s and women’s liberation. The rigid dress code was tossed out, expectations of women’s abilities and choices expanded. Positive progress! And yet – we lost a few good things. Dressing appropriately in public places, for instance. Have you seen the website “the people of Walmart?” Brace yourself.  And while being what we now call a “stay-at-home mom” isn’t for every woman (do you hear how belittling that term is?), it is certainly a noble and worthwhile choice that deserves as much respect as any other.

As for back-then, well, most things people miss about back-then never existed for the majority of the population. We look fondly back at a certain strata of the middle class of each generation and see cozy cottages, disciplined children, wholesome food, respectful manners. If such idyllic conditions ever truly existed (with no arguing, no abusive spouses, no misbehaved children, no alcoholism or drug abuse, no oppression, no illness, no war??) then they did for only those who could afford to create this ideal. The very poor have always had to struggle to survive by any means necessary, and the very rich make their own rules. Some of the wickedest people that ever existed put up a social screen of pure respectability.

As an historical mystery writer, I love to delve into the past. My favorite discoveries are of issues we usually associate with nowadays, not back-then. I’ve learned that 1901, the year my mystery series begins, and today have many similarities. The United States had soldiers fighting in foreign lands (Cuba, the Philippines, China) and many were coming home physically and emotionally wounded. Our military presence abroad was hotly debated.  Some commercial food, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products were tainted, falsely labeled, even deadly. Newspapers were influenced by lucrative contracts with advertisers and stories slanted for political or personal agendas. Every daily paper reported shootings, suicides, theft. Swindlers stole the life-savings of innocent investors. The eeriest similarity came in September of 1901, when President McKinley was shot by an anarchist. The nation was shocked. People pulled together, friends and family turned to each other for comfort. Everyday life for many took on an unsettled quality as they awaited news of the president’s fate. When McKinley died eight days after the shooting, the nation mourned, theaters and music halls temporarily closed, and communities gathered for memorial services. If anyone dared say a word against the late president, they were berated and threatened. Effigies of anarchists were hung by the neck in prominent places. Like the September of 2001 one hundred years later, a violent attack triggered shock and fear, bringing out patriotism and ugliness and uncertainty.

But I don’t want to leave this on a somber note. Resilience, ingenuity, and generosity, those qualities were abundant back-then, just like nowadays. Our outer world looks vastly different thanks to the amazing inventions of the early twentieth century that launched us into the modern age, but our inner worlds haven’t changed. We struggle, we yearn, we love, we hope. We search for meaning, we pray for our children’s future, and we look with wonder at the potential of mankind.


Thanks Bernadette for sharing with use about the differences and the similarities between historical and contemporary mysteries. I agree that regardless of the time period that a novel is set motivations and people are the same but the time setting can impact how the story flows and ebbs.  You can read an excerpt of Bernadette’s A Spark of Death here.

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