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Historical Mysteries

The Conjurer, Cordelia Frances Biddle, Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95.

Every year a ton of new historical mysteries come out - it's a "hot" subgenre - but few of them are actually good or memorable. In this case though, both words apply - good and memorable. Set in 1842 Philadelphia, Biddle is already leagues in front of the crowd in selecting a time period that hasn't been well traveled, and a city, Philadelphia, that's been underused as well. When thinking of American history it's kind of odd Philadelphia hasn't been used more often to greater effect (Mark Graham did have an excellent series a few years ago) but it gives Cordelia Biddle a clean slate for her novel, which really is wonderful.

The Conjurer is all the things a good historical novel should be - it's complex, it has a great sense of time and place while not overwhelming the reader with details, and it has a main character who is intelligent but not unbelievably anachronistic. Sometimes female characters in historical mysteries are too spunky and out of place for their own good - they just aren't believable for the time period they are supposed to exist in. Luckily, Biddle doesn't fall into this trap, and while it holds Martha back in some cases, you can understand why and wonder if she can rise above her circumstances. (Cynthia Peale, who had an all too short lived series set in Boston, was also excellent at this).

This novel begins with the discovery of the missing Lemuel Beale, one of the richest men in Philadelphia. He had been out hunting and only his dogs are found as the swollen river rages below them. Despite a prolonged search, the man is presumed dead, and his daughter, the sheltered Martha, is left to figure out how life will go on after her father's death. Martha is so sheltered she knows nothing of her father's business dealings and is left to rely on his confidential secretary, Owen Simms, who seems vaguely creepy even at a first meeting with him. The disappearance of Martha's father is also being followed closely by the mayor's office in the form of his agent, Thomas Kelman.

Meanwhile, Biddle intersperses another story of a man who is killing very young prostitutes, and the story of an Italian "conjurer" who is invited to society parties and often comes out with disturbing, and strangely relevant, visions. One of them concerns Martha, and one another member of Philadelphia high society, Emily Durand.

The plotting in this novel is extremely complex and has many disparate threads that seem unconnected but of course are. It's truly a "mystery" in the best sense of the word, as well as being an excellent evocation of a certain time and place. Biddle's dreamy and lovely prose takes the reader even further into the time period; finishing the book was almost like waking up and finding yourself back in the present. I hate to compare, but this first novel makes me think a bit of Kate Ross and Bruce Alexander. Check it out for yourself, and see if you agree that Ms. Biddle may soon join the celestial heights attained by those late masters of the history mystery genre. Even if you don't agree that Biddle is up those high standards, this is an entertaining, well written book that stands very nicely all on it's own.

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