Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

Philadelphia - 1842

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womeninworldhistory.com

The Conjurer

A Martha Beale Mystery

by Cordelia Frances Biddle

The book begins with the mysterious disappearance of Lemuel Beale, one of Philadephia’s millionaires and father to unmarried twenty-six year old Martha. Horrendous killings of young prostitutes follow, forcing Thomas Kelman, homicide investigator to Philadelphia’s mayor, to repeatedly cross class lines in his attempts to solve both mysteries. This allows for one of the book’s strengths - the vivid descriptions of the city’s wealthiest citizens and its most abject, living in close proximity. The author’s views of events and places in the nation’s 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 America’s 19th century urban poverty. We also, of course, learn of “fashionable” society’s fascination with mesmerism, artificial somnambulism, and conjuring.

In spite of the book’s 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.

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