The book begins with the mysterious disappearance of Lemuel Beale, one of Philadephias millionaires and father to unmarried twenty-six year old Martha. Horrendous killings of young prostitutes follow, forcing Thomas Kelman, homicide investigator to Philadelphias mayor, to repeatedly cross class lines in his attempts to solve both mysteries. This allows for one of the books strengths - the vivid descriptions of the citys wealthiest citizens and its most abject, living in close proximity. The authors views of events and places in the nations preeminent industrial city in 1842, are equally interesting: the aromas and textures of Victorian era homes, the corrupt business pratices, competing fire company gangs, unsanitary prisons, race riots and the tenuous position of free or run-away slaves, the prostitute quarters, and, above all, the throw-away children - products of Americas 19th century urban poverty. We also, of course, learn of fashionable societys fascination with mesmerism, artificial somnambulism, and conjuring.
In spite of the books rich historical details, its weakest link is Martha, the billed character. Her role in the plot actually is very slight. Suppressed by her authoritarian father and the dictates of her class and position, docile Martha endlessly fantasizes about asserting herself, and then never really does. One hopes for a more engrossing character in the proposed future Martha Beale mysteries.
Yes, the author, a Philadelphian native, is part of the famous Biddle clan.