“The Physicist’s Daughter” by Mary Anna Evans

Author Mary Anna Evans often infuses her popular, award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries with science. With her new novel, The Physicist’s Daughter (Poisoned Pen Press, 2022), Evans steps away from that series. She expands her deft use of science-as-plot, all the while dishing up suspense and mystery in a novel peopled with compelling characters in a lush setting. Evans, with her scientific background, combines her knowledge with outstanding writing talents to produce an excellent historical thriller. The Physicist’s Daughter might well be Mary Anna Evans at her best.

Set in New Orleans in the waning days of WWII, The Physicist’s Daughter focuses on three women—Justine Byrne, her friend Georgette Broussard, and Justine’s godmother Gloria Mazur.

Prior to the book’s opening time frame, Justine’s parents were both killed in a suspicious accident. Because she was raised by two physicists, Justine was taught skills, including welding and science, both long deemed to be the domain of men. Yet she never learned to flirt or dance. In scenes leading up to a double date, Georgette teaches her the latest dance steps and how to flirt. But it is the serious Justine that dominates the story. Author Evans has described her as “a little bit Rosie-the-Riveter and a little bit Bletchley Park codebreaker.” In fact, her ability to break a code does play into the plot.

Justine and Georgette both work at Higgins Industries, at the Michaud plant, which was “well known around wartime New Orleans as a place that hired women to do work they usually weren’t allowed to do. Black people too.” Justine understands though, as do the others, that when the men come home from the war, “She, along with a lot of other people working themselves to the bone for an Allied victory, would be back to slinging hash and mopping floors.” In this, the novel reflects an accurate history with sympathy toward women and other victims of the era’s prejudices.

The novel opens with an industrial death at the plant. Justine is suspicious of this so-called accident because, as a welder, she has been called to repair key parts in the assembly of a mysterious product. With her sharp eyes, she puzzles over why the same or similar parts keep breaking. She can’t help but worry these strange ruptures have something to do with the other worker’s death. After contemplating whether poor design or cheap supplies or just the repetitive stresses are causing problems, Justine suspects someone is deliberately tampering with the equipment. If the destruction is intentional, Justine realizes a spy and saboteur might well lurk among her co-workers. The saboteur could be anyone—even her immediate boss, Sonny, the rather odious manager with a chip on his shoulder and an eye for his women employees. Justine cannot know who to trust and what to do with her suspicions—though she knows better than to go to Sonny.

Further complicating matters, Justine is unsure—at least at first—exactly what she is working on. She and Georgette work in the carbon division, a secured compound with limited access where employees operate in relative isolation and are sworn to secrecy. While Justine works within this walled-off area of the plant, the final product is assembled in yet another walled-off area.

Seeking help, Justine visits her beloved godmother Gloria, a former physics professor at a women’s college. Gloria warns Justine to be exceedingly careful. In what could be signs of budding mental illness, Gloria believes she is being spied upon and hints that their lives might well be in danger.

Justine’s danger escalates with the introduction of two mysterious characters, Mudcat and Fritz. Both appear to be agents or spies, who are stalking Justine. Fritz, in particular, develops a sexual obsession with her. As Mudcat and Fritz pursue Justine with recruitment and more in mind, they become powerful and enigmatic forces in the developing plot.

Evans does a bold thing with the voices of two apparent antagonists without revealing which character in the plot they might be. She has expertly used this technique in her Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries, particularly in Undercurrents. She does it again in The Physicist’s Daughter with a particularly sharp focus and excellent control. Readers learn enough of what’s in the heads of Fritz and Mudcat and their apparent motivations by following these men’s actions through their own eyes—all without knowing precisely who either man really is. To carry this out as successfully as she does displays Evans’ talents at writing.

Though the book is fictional, it relies upon some established history in that the Higgins plant was a real place, and that its owner Andrew Higgins was a real industrialist and inventor. Higgins appears in the book a couple of pivotal times, and Justine observes that “Andrew Higgins had a habit of inventing things that moved Allied troops where they needed to go, even when getting there seemed impossible. This was why the war had exploded his seventy-five-person boatbuilding business into a military contracting outfit that employed twenty thousand souls at plants spread across New Orleans and into the Louisiana.”

Engrossing, diverse characters pull the parts of this intricate novel together in a pleasing and compelling way. The contrasts between the three female leads are profound but power the story line forward. The scenes where Justine and Georgette become friends sharing their meager rations in their boarding house show not only the characters’ personalities but reflect the realities for working women in that era. Evans has always excelled in capturing a character’s essence in a few astute words, such as Mudcast’s observation of Justine: “He had seen her throw her arms around Gloria Mazur like someone who didn’t have to be given permission to love.”

Science, characters, and history might form the strong backbone of this novel, but Evans’ crisp yet often lyrical descriptions add to the richness. For example, she describes New Orleans from a streetcar: “Justine had a soft spot for wrought iron, and long stretches of St. Charles were lined with wrought-iron fences and gates and pergolas. She liked the way the hardness of the iron was softened by tendrils of green ivy and gray shadows of old live oaks. She wouldn’t have minded spending a little extra time on the streetcar, just to look at the iron.”

Discrimination against women in science is an underlying theme. In one particularly telling scene, Evans compares the labs and resources available to Justine’s father, Professor Byrne, who taught at a New Orleans university, to those of Gloria, who taught at a women’s college. “Within minutes, Mudcat was looking at a photo of Gloria Mazur in her lab, which looked sad and empty when compared to Byrne’s forest of modern equipment. No wonder she was forced to play intellectual handmaiden to Byrne.”

Nor does the book shy away from ethical issues involved in making weapons and engaging in war. Yet these matters—the ethics and the discrimination—are so finely woven into the fabric of the plot that there is no sense of preaching in the book.

Mary Anna Evans is a master at her craft and so The Physicist’s Daughter is rich with twists, turns, red herrings, suspense, and danger. The adept use of science and history make this a true stand-out. All in all, an excellent, riveting historical mystery with page-turning/thriller pacing, literary quality writing, lush well-described settings, and compelling, complicated characters.

Mary Anna Evans holds a Bachelor of Science in engineering physics and a Master of Science in chemical engineering, and she is a licensed Professional Engineer. She concedes “All of these things came in quite handy while writing The Physicists’ Daughter.” She is also the author of the Faye Longchamp Archaeological Mysteries, which have received the Oklahoma Book Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award, and a Will Rogers Medallion Awards Gold Medal. Evans also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers University and is an assistant professor specializing in fiction and nonfiction writing at The University of Oklahoma.


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