The Professor’s Assassin by Matthew Pearl

This recently released short story is a prequel to Pearl’s forthcoming novel The Technologists (Feb 21, 2012). Pearl is known for writing engaging historical mysteries featuring prominent 19th century literary figures (Longfellow, Poe, Dickens). I’ve been a fan since 2003 when The Dante Club came out.

“The Professor’s Assassin” is based on events that occurred at the University of Virginia in 1840, twenty-one years after Thomas Jefferson founded it. Tensions are heating up over slavery and some students are rioting, demanding the right to carry arms into the classroom. John Davis, a professor, is shot one evening after the riots had quieted for the day. He later dies from his wound. Davis knew the identity of his assailant, but refused to name him.

William Barton Rogers is a young science professor at UVA who refuses to let Davis’s murderer go unpunished, not out of revenge but to bring the murderer to justice for the sake of society. A young slave who was committed to Davis suddenly goes missing, as does the lead suspect. With the aid of a sophomore student and some of the student leaders of the riots, Rogers sets out to solve the mystery.

I enjoyed the story, but it didn’t really take off for me until the half-way point. I wanted more historical flavor. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to reading novels that have more time to set the stage. This is the first digital short story that I’ve downloaded and it was completely worth the 99 cents that I paid for it.

If the name William Barton Rogers rings a bell, it’s because he’s the guy who founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1861. The Technologists revolves around the first graduating class of MIT.

The Professor’s Assassin
Matthew Pearl
Random House, digital release December 2011
ISBN: 9780345530141
Source: bought it

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