The Conjurer by Cordelia Frances Biddle

The Conjuror1842, Philadelphia. On a stormy night, the river Schuylkill bursts its banks and seemingly sweeps Lemuel Beale to his death, although no body is found. His daughter, Martha, is convinced that he is still alive, but things look bleak.

Meanwhile, in the nearby city, street girls lie murdered, one with her tongue cut out, an event described from afar by Eusapio Paladino, self-styled conjurer, clairvoyant, necromancer and somnabulist. As Paladino hints at secrets held by Martha’s social circle, it seems that a number of people’s lives are intertwining until events build to a murderous climax.

This is the first in a series of three novels to date in the “Martha Beale Mysteries” from Cordelia Francis Biddle, published as ebooks by Open Road Media, who asked me to take a look at this one. From the blurb, it intrigued me so I figured I’d give it a go.

I have to say, I’m completely torn on this one. The world of 1840s Philadelphia is brought vividly to life. At times, I was reminded of the way Paul Doherty describes medieval Southwark in the Brother Athelstan series – you can almost reach out and touch it, although you’d probably want to wash your hands afterward. It’s a time and place that I know next to nothing about and it intrigued me to learn more.

Similarly the characters was well constructed, crossing all tiers of society from the well-to-do to those forced to live in the gutter. Martha isn’t the unnaturally independent woman that a lazy author would create – she would be out of place in the Philadelphia of the time – but someone who steadily finds her strengths. As the story builds, it became harder and harder to put down.

But… it’s not much of a mystery. Certainly not one that the reader is invited to solve. If anyone is surprised at the identity of the villain of the piece, then they need their head examined. Also, the murderer’s identity isn’t deduced but revealed when a why-I-killed-them rant to his accomplice is overheard by chance.

Fair enough, it doesn’t have to be a traditional mystery, but if you’re going to sell a book as a “Martha Beale Mystery”, then I’d expect a little more misdirection or surprise in the plot.

But it is an engrossing read and given that there is a fair bit of setting up the status quo here, I’m pretty sure that I’ll give the series another chance in the future. Recommended, but mostly for historians rather than armchair sleuths – who might be irked by one particular aspect of the plot as well.

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