This historical mystery is set in Philadelphia in 1842. Martha Beale is the sheltered, unmarried daughter of a wealthy financier, Lemuel Beale, who goes missing while out hunting. The mayor sends Thomas Kelman, his personal assistant, to investigate. Kelman attempts to determine if Beale fell into the river accidentally and was drowned, as his secretary Owen Simms insists, or if he was murdered. Martha is curious about the circumstances surrounding her father’s death, and wants Kelman to continue investigating.
Meanwhile, young prostitutes in the city are being killed in a gruesome manner. The conjurer of the title, Eusapio Paladino, has visions of the killings while appearing at the parties of wealthy Philadelphians. As the two stories become interwoven, Martha finally asserts her independence and finds happiness.
Biddle does a good job of depicting life in Philadelphia in the 19th century for both the wealthy and the poor, especially the disturbing amount of control men had over the lives of their wives and daughters. This is the first in a new series featuring Martha Beale and Thomas Kelman. I would have liked to learn more about Kelman’s background and his investigative methods, but perhaps that will happen in future installments.