Using the ongoing rivalry of the Harvard elite and the MIT futurists, Matthew Pearl mixes post Civil War Boston with a slow-moving historical thriller. The story opens with compasses gone awry causing boats to collide in Boston harbor; then bank windows melt with an unsuspecting customer leaning against the pane toppling to the street. A promising opening, but the action slows immediately. The search for the perpetrator suddenly switches to the confrontation between Harvard old-school classical learning vs the new school in town – MIT with its suspicious sciences and new technology in the nineteenth century.
A team of MIT seniors (the first class about to graduate from the fledgling school) drives the action: scholarship student (known as “charity scholar”) Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and former factory worker with a brilliant mind; Robert Richards, blue-blood Boston dropout/transfer from Harvard; Edwin Hoyt, the quiet brains of the outfit; and token woman scholar, Ellen Swallow, who manages to rise above the trials of being among the all-male nineteenth century class. To demonstrate that MIT students can think and solve problems as well as their Harvard rivals, the group works secretly to uncover the villain and save the reputation of their alma mater.
The historical context uses the then-new controversial revelations of Darwin and the suspicion of machinery to add to the fear, with the underlying supposition that technology somehow is behind the city’s destruction. After the thrilling opening events, however, Pearl settles into flashbacks of the recently ended Civil War, and the culture of the late 1860s in old Boston.
After more catastrophes, a little romance, and continued drama among the collegiate, the mystery is solved and the unlikely genius behind the technological crimes is uncovered – but the revelation is a long, tortuous journey. I tend to like my thrillers – historical or otherwise – to be fast paced and hard to put down; this was not a page turner. Although I finally did finish The Technologists, it took longer than it deserved. I’d had the same feeling with Pearl’s other bestseller, The Dante Club – the end was worth getting to, but also a relief to get to the end.