Ah, a mystery set in my hometown of Philadelphia. True, it is the 1800s so it is not quite the same city, so what the hell.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I found the mystery in and of it gripping, but the characters as opposed to the plot were simply there. It was hard to feel anything for them. And quite frankly, Martha, the heroine, while not unlikable is hard to feel anything for outside of, perhaps, a vague annoyance. Perhaps this is because she is such an outsider. The idea of an Old Maid (relatively speaking, she is only 26) functioning on her own in the 1800s is interesting. It’s just hard to root for her when one of the bad guys is so blatantly obvious and so set up from the beginning to be the bad guy. This doesn’t make the story, in terms of the mystery itself, any less interesting, but it does make you want to smack Martha Beale at some points. Then you feel guilty because you want to smack her.
Beale’s character is problematic not because she is a modern woman in 1800s Philadelphia, but because she is a woman of her time who has led a somewhat sheltered existence. She is believable for the time period. She fits. And strangely this problem because while she fits, the modern woman has a slight problem with her passiveness. Her father kept her well educated but too sheltered. There are hints that he either didn’t want to force her into a loveless marriage or didn’t want to be alone – an intelligent analysis of the relationship. But while Martha is sheltered, she is well read. This conflicts with her lack of knowledge in some places. This might be excused by a lack of friends, but then why does she care about society if she isn’t a member of it and doesn’t want to belong? It’s a little conflict, and while we as humans are walking examples of conflict and hypocrisy, it is hard to get a feeling of Martha when she feels like two separate characters all the time.
The supporting female characters actually fare a bit better. One does want to know the outcome of Ruth’s story and the sequence involving Eastern State Penn is a stand out in this book. The conflict of class and society are interesting and there is evidence of influence of Austen and Dickens. There is a strong sense of place and the book is at times gorgeously descriptive. It is worth reading simply for the supporting characters if nothing else.