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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic


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The Conjurer compared, and fails - but fills the Amateur Sleuth square

The Conjurer (Martha Beale Mysteries) - Cordelia Frances Biddle

In truth, I skimmed a great deal of the last 20%.  The story itself ended at 89%, with the rest being historical notes and a preview of the next Martha Beale "mystery."


I don't watch soap operas and I know next to nothing about Philadelphia social history, so whether or not Cordelia Frances Biddle's name recognition contributed to whatever success this book might have enjoyed is beyond my knowledge.  I don't care, either.  As far as I'm concerned, the book was an utter failure.


The weakness of the plot and the unlikeability of the characters brought the rating down to two stars at absolute best.  The present tense narrative dropped it another full point.  At the moment it's sitting at one-star but that may not hold.


Martha Beale, daughter and heiress to Lemuel Beale, is part of 1840s Philadelphia society.  That set seems to have little to recommend it or redeem it of its sins of greed.  At the other end of society, there are the child prostitutes, the beggars, the criminals.  There seems to be nothing in between.


And that's where Biddle lost me. 


At first, I compared her to Dickens, then a bit later to Hugo.  But they were writing of their own contemporaries and for their contemporaries.  Caleb Carr, author of the New York City-set The Alienist and The Angel of Death, wrote of the past, like Biddle.  So as I compared The Conjurer to the other works, I kept finding less and less to like.


I sat back and considered just the element of the mysteries.  Biddle brings in a lot of loose threads to weave her tale, but in doing so, she makes the whole solution more the result of blind chance than of any kind of detecting. Well, blind chance and the utter stupidity of the criminals.


That there were so many criminals in the highest circles of society was a bit unrealistic, if only because Biddle didn't show the other side.  Her story was of almost unrelenting depression.


There was some hopefulness at the end, but even that was tempered with tragedy, as poor people who tried to do something good were ultimately destroyed. 


I'm not inclined to read either of the other two Martha Beale mysteries, though I have them.  I don't need any more of that kind of depressing fare.