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Historical Mysteries

Deception's Daughter, Cordelia Frances Biddle, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

The follow up to Biddle's terrific first Martha Beale novel, The Conjurer, may be even better than the first one, which is saying quite a bit. Biddle's central character, Martha Beale, lost her father in the last book and in this one is struggling to find her own place in the world while raising two adopted children. She has not unresolved, but unacted upon, feelings for Thomas Kelman, the investigative arm of the Mayor's office. Set in 1842 Philadelphia, this is a pitch perfect recreation of time and place with a heroine who seems to belong to her setting. Combined with Biddle's frequently poetic and very evocative prose, this makes for a total immersion reading experience. The story in this novel seems more finely tuned and focused than the one in the first novel, which was very wide in scope. Because this is a second novel some of the bits that establish the character aren't necessary and Biddle seems ready to go with her story from page one. The main thread of the novel is the disappearance of young heiress Theodora Crowther, to her parent's intense grief and the growing puzzlement of Thomas Kelman who calls Martha in to help, as she is of the same social stature as the Crowther's. Much like Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt characters, Thomas and Martha are a nice balance of class, giving each a necessary entry into the other's world.

Martha is both compassionate and practical (an excellent combination) and so is both helpful to the Crowthers as the story of their daughter's life and disappearance unspools and the final horrible revelations are made. While this is a mystery novel, I still found the eventual death a shocking surprise - to this long time reader of mystery fiction, a body that causes shock and sadness is an unusual experience. The parts that make this book stand out are the gifts of a natural born writer - the way the characters interact, the way they are fleshed out, and the bits of beautiful writing and atmosphere that bring the plot and characters even more fully to life. The fact that it's a suspenseful mystery is a bonus.

As Anne Perry has become more wordy and her plots less dynamic, I've found a need to fill my historical reading void, one once filled by Perry. I've enjoyed books by Jacqueline Winspear, Victoria Thompson, Rhys Bowen and P.B. Ryan, but for me at least none of these writers have the complete package that Biddle offers. Here's hoping for a very long lived series.

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