Ellen Ternan just can't stay out of trouble. No sooner has Charles Dickens removed the young actress, his ``ward,'' from Urania House, banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts's home for wayward women, and gotten her settled in the home of proto- feminists Barbara Leigh Smith and Marian Evans (not yet George Eliot) than the Protectives are looking for her for killing Eliza Lane, whose wild threats against the members of Angela's Women's Emancipation Society were cut short when someone tied Nellie's scarf around her throat during a robbery of the Coutts Bank. Ellen's only alibi: She was spending the night in the St. George Hotel with Dickens, who feels honor-bound to clear her name without losing his own. Dickens's detective work, though he gives himself high marks for it, amounts to little more than wading through a thicket of cross-dressing daughters of Lesbos (Marie de Brevecoeur, Sydney Beach), celebrity walk-ons (Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and future Dickens characters (John Barsad, Jaggers the lawyer) in search of the ``phantom'' who's taken the Emancipationists in thrall by mesmerizing them with his devilish blue-stoned ring. As for Dickens amanuensis Wilkie Collins, who continues to give Dr. Watson a run for his money as the dimmest sidekick in detective fiction--well, it looks like a long way to The Moonstone. Palmer's third (The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens, 1992, etc.) continues his quest to peer into every fleshpot in Victorian England. Better as unbridled period adventure than mystery.