Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Martha Beale Mysteries

Historic St. Peter's Episcopal Churchyard, Philadelphia,
~ as it was in the 19th Century, so it is today ~
(looking west toward Old Pine Presbyterian)

If you're in the mood for a murder mystery, the novels of Cordelia Frances Biddle, with lots of old Philadelphia history and a strong female lead named Martha Beale, are just the thing for a long winter's night with the snow whirling and wind howling.

Back in September 2010, I mentioned The Conjurer in a list of titles by friends and friends of friends. Cordelia was one of my Philadelphia neighbors, and her research of the city is impressive. If you've never been, it will come to life for you; if you've been already, you'll be transported right back to those time - honored streets once more.

A couple of dark and stormy November afternoons provided the perfect background for the hours I spent immersed in Deception's Daughter. In the opening chapter, entitled "In the Wind, Ghosts," Martha's young daughter Ella explains earnestly: "But the wind cannot be wretched, Mother . . . It bears the ghosts of all the souls who have gone before us" (3). When little brother Cai "begins to whimper about invisible demons winging through the air . . . Martha . . . tries to convince him that the unseen spirits are not ghouls or wraiths come to haunt and harm him, but angels with enormous and shining wings flying close to earth in order to protect him." Even so, "Cai remains steadfast in his belief that ghosts are riding in the wind. . . . " Ghosts are everywhere, and they especially enjoy spiriting through cold chimneys and terrorizing small, defenseless boys" (6 - 7, 127).

One of the Fairmont Mansions
Artist Unknown

Additional favorite passages:

" 'Oh, bosh! Should have. Could have. Would have. What an odious trio. When I was forced to keep to my rooms these past days, I made a promise to ignore those gloomy villains. I suggest you do the same' " (from Deception's Daughter, 108).

"How is it that our solitary existences are so dependent upon others? We believe we're self - governing, but circumstances continually work to remold us; and we grow like trees clustered in a forest: bowed down by prevailing winds, stunted within the shadow of larger plants or flourishing because a neighbor has toppled and relinquished its proprietary ownership of light and air" (from The Conjurer, 206).

Continuing saga:

The third Martha Beale mystery, Without Fear features thespian Becky Grey, who first appears in Deception's Daughter. Biddle writes that "Becky is able to descend deep into the depths of dark Philadelphia. Loosely based on Fanny Kemble, married to arch-conservative slave-owner Phila gent Pierce Butler."

And fourth: The Actress

If you are interested in learning more, check out Cordelia Biddle's fabulously informative website.

Map of Gray's Ferry, 1790
Just a few blocks from where our West Philly House
at 48th & Baltimore was built 100 years later!


  1. Cordelia writes: "I am honored that you chose to add that small passage from "The Conjurer," Kitti. I remember writing it, and wondering that it flew out fully formed from my fingers.

  2. Cordelia writes: "Kitti, you are remarkable! I just read those words I wrote, and it seems as though another person had conceived them. I thought "oh, yes, that's how I feel, too!" Who says writers don't have dual or even triple personalities? When I'm writing (well - as opposed to struggling), my psyche is subsumed in another. Thanks for reminding me what "I" said."