Set in 1842 Philadelphia, the novel features Martha Beale, twenty-six, unmarried. She has been dominated by her wealthy father her entire life, and when Lemuel Beale suddenly disappears, she finds that Owen Simms, her father's secretary, takes over that role. She is treated as a child and denied any sense of autonomy.
Although Martha occasionally tries to assert herself, she is only rarely successful. When mayoral assistant Thomas Kelman is assigned to the case, she senses a support she is not getting elsewhere, and the two develop a low key attraction for each other.
The search for Lemuel Beale takes a bit of a sideline when Kelman finds himself assigned the gruesome murder of a child prostitute.
In the meantime, upper class society is fascinated by an Italian conjurer. At a seance held for some of the Philadelphia elite, the conjurer goes into a trance and mentions details about the murder of the first child.
What I liked: Rich detail about the period and social customs; I wasn't certain who "Mr. Roby" (the murderer was).
What I didn't like: Martha's passivity; the distasteful episodes concerning the child prostitutes; the almost incidental episodes with the conjurer--since he really did seem to be channeling certain events, his role was pitifully small; Martha doesn't really make any attempt to solve the mystery, that role is Kelman's.
Actually, the parts that drove me almost to distraction were the conversations between Martha and Owen Simms. Each time the two had any contact, I would realize I was gritting my teeth. Patronizing doesn't even cover his behavior.
The Conjurer was originally published in 2007, and was the first in the series featuring Martha Beale. Two more followed. I wouldn't mind reading the next one to see if Martha's character develops.
read in June
NetGalley/Open Road Media
Historic Mystery. 2007; 2014. Print length: 319 pages.