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The Conjurer: A Martha Beale Mystery (Martha Beale Mysteries) Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 6, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Sordid secrets of the rich and powerful drive the plot of Biddle's unconvincing Philadelphia historical, the first of a new series. One morning in 1842, Main Line financier Lemuel Beale fails to return from a routine hunting trip; his capable but coddled daughter, Martha, and Thomas Kelman, assistant to the mayor of Philadelphia, set out to track him down. At the same time, a brutal serial killer of young prostitutes is stalking the inner-city slums, and traveling mesmerist Eusapio Paladino is chilling aristocratic audiences with performances in which the dead appear to be calling out through his trances. These disparate yet interrelated story threads combine in an intricately orchestrated narrative that implicates the Brahmin class and the corruption that comes with their absolute power. Biddle wonderfully evokes the color and culture of the time, but her overstocked tale ends hastily and unbelievably. Biddle is the coauthor with her husband, Steve Zettel, of Death on the Diagonal and other Nero Blanc crossword puzzle mysteries. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In 1842 Philadelphia, Martha Beale's life changes dramatically after her father, wealthy financier Lemuel Beale, disappears while hunting. Her father's confidential secretary, Owen Simms, quietly takes over the decision making in her life, and Martha is not sure how to break free of his seemingly solicitous control. Martha believes her father might be alive, and Thomas Kelman, assistant to the mayor of Philadelphia, investigates his disappearance, along with the ritual murders of several young prostitutes. A conjurer, Eusapio Paladino, complicates matters with his visions of the murders and his affair with a wealthy society woman. Told from multiple points of view, the many story lines converge as Martha and Thomas solve her father's disappearance and find a pair of murderers. An excellent sense of time and place permeate the action, but the complex plot and multiple points of view, some unnecessary to the main story line, distract from Martha and Thomas' investigation. Leisurely pacing; numerous, well-integrated details of place and time; and appealing central characters make for a satisfying historical mystery. Sue O'Brien
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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This is a crime tale, however, and I did find it hard to focus on the disappearance of a wealthy landowner or the murder of a young prostitute, when we constantly get other strays and waifs taking up the story and then disappearing. Martha Beale who is the daughter of the missing man, has been gently raised but decides to start doing good works in order that the police and authorities will keep up the search for her father, who is presumed drowned. Appropriately she begins her works at the orphan home. This starts her involvement with the city's poor and those who prey on them.
I find the present tense awkward and can only suppose that the author has used it in order to bring the past to life in front of us. Some of the characters are based on her own past family members, she tells us, and so far there are three books in the series.
From the very beginning the reader is in the middle of a mysterious disappearance. Two dogs wait faithfully beside the flooding Schuylkill River as it roars past carrying debris as large as trees. It is cold and the dogs shiver but refuse to leave the point where they last saw their master, Lemuel Beale. At the Beale mansion his 26 year old daughter Martha and his private secretary Owen Simms await his arrival for a meal.
The most interesting part of the book, and the most maddening to modern women, is the restricted life of the upper class woman contrasted with the hopeless life of the poor and/or black woman. You will be shocked at the fact of 11 year old prostitutes, many of whom had been sold by their fathers, and equally shocked at the way wealthy women lived, or rather existed. They had no say whatsoever in any aspect of their lives and had to obey strict rules of conduct and dress.
I was fascinated also by such historical tidbits as the story of Eastern State Penitentiary which is open to tourists now. Absolute silence was the rule. The men had an indoor cell and an outdoor one, but women only had indoor cells because they were thought to need protection from fresh air and weather. The stench in the place was terrible, partly due to sewage back-up during floods.
There is also the story of The Association for the Care of Colored Orphans created by some of the wealthy women of Philadelphia. They took in 60 orphans at a time and gave them clean quarters, basic education, and good food, but no toys.
The one objection I have to the book is that the solution to the several mysteries comes a little too abruptly as does transformation in major characters. This is a minor quibble though in an otherwise excellent novel.
Highly recommended ebook
Source: Open Road Media/Netgalley
All that is good. What’s wrong with this story is that there are too many characters who float around the story. There are four or five woman characters and some other peripheral woman who with some five or six main males clog up the story. Starting with the story of one and then interconnecting them is a time honored style, but too many stories begin to overlap and the reader is left perplexed much of the time. It’s like reading a Russian novel with a cast of thousands in a three hundred page book.
On Amazon I found eleven reviews (since it was published in 2007) of the book divided between ‘I hated it’ to ‘I hated it’. Truly this is a harlequin style story. It should be presented as an historical romance so that the ‘right’ reader can find it.
Zeb Kantrowitz zworstblog.blogspot.com