The Martha Beale Mysteries are set in Philadelphia in 1842, and are serious rivals of historical mysteries written by British authors such as Anne Perry and Michael Jecks among others. Cordelia Frances Biddle creates pre-Civil War Philadelphia with all its sights, sounds, and smells. While many mansions remain from colonial days, there also crowded slums and poverty. The shouts of street vendors, wagons with iron clad wheels and horses plodding over cobblestone streets, the bellows and squeals of livestock going to slaughter provide a level of noise our modern ears would find uncomfortable. The smells of unwashed humanity, animal waste, and the sharp order from tanneries and slaughter houses bring tears to the eyes and leave a taste in one's mouth.
Side by side with the squalor are the luxurious homes of the wealthy. In one such home lives Martha Beale, wealthy heiress, who at twenty-six can be very nearly classified as a spinster. Most women of her age and station are already wives and mothers, but if Philadelphia society thinks badly of Martha's marital status, everyone is careful to remain quiet. Martha is, after all, very, very rich and with no father and no husband, is in total control of her fortune, She does find herself involved in murder rather more often than one expects of a lady in her social position. Actually, ladies of her class never find themselves in that position.
In fact, Martha Beale has behaved in other unconventional ways about which Philadelphia society must bite it's collective tongue to avoid vocally criticizing her. Martha has adopted Ella, an eleven-year-old child prostitute, although society is unaware of Ella's former status, and Cai, a young mixed blood Negro child. If adopting socially inferior children and her involvement in murder isn't enough to raise eyebrows. there is always Martha's association with Thomas Kelman, a criminal investigator with the Mayor's office, to provide grist for the rumor mill. Philadelphia society would be horrified if it knew that Martha and Thomas hold strong if unexpressed romantic feelings for one another. If they should, God forbid, marry, then even all of Martha's wealth might not prevent her ostracism from society.
In this second book of the series, Martha witnesses the abandonment of an infant and the suicide of its mother. The infant is saved by the actions of a group of boys from an orphanage led by twelve-year-old Findal Stokes. But who is the unfortunate mother and who fathered the child? How do the night time thefts committed with help of children fit into the picture, or do they? Then there is the question of young Theodora Crowther, daughter of a very wealthy Main Line family. Has she been kidnapped or has she eloped with her fiance? Are Martha and Thomas looking at one crime or two?
Ms. Biddle draws on historical facts and uses members of her own family as minor characters to re-create 1842 Philadelphia, and provides the reader with a first rate mystery. Anyone who loves historical mysteries will love this series.