As a serial killer stalks child prostitutes, a wealthy financier vanishes in 1842 Philadelphia.
Martha Beale is a cosseted spinster, subservient first to her financier father, and then, when he’s presumed drowned, to Owen Simms, his secretary. Beneath her quiet exterior, however, are ripples of defiance ready to break through. Soon enough, she’s drawn to Thomas Kelman, an assistant to the mayor of Philadelphia, who’s unwilling to write off her father’s death as an accident. In his investigations of the Beale disappearance and the child murders, he discovers some disturbing connections to a woman in an insane asylum who was repeatedly raped by the brother who visits her under a false name. Meanwhile, Eusapio Paladino, a conjurer and clairvoyant, has been appearing at private parties delivering scandalous utterances about the crimes. Society beauty Emily Durand, who falls under his spell, is ruined when her husband is shot and Paladino is arrested. Learning that the late Durand was bankrupt, Emily rescues Martha from a drugged stupor brought on by Simms, who wants to marry her but can control her only with opium. Not till the end will defiant Martha and patient Kelman solve the sordid crimes hidden by the wealth and patina of high society.
Biddle’s debut offers some appealing characters, but a wealth of intriguing period detail ultimately overwhelms the mystery.