Pros: Smart plot, plenty of backstory, and a shocker of an ending.
Cons: Drags a bit in spots, but the tension stays taunt all the way through.
This year I have been carefully pacing out my collection of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series, hoping to prolong the series as much as I can for as much enjoyment as possible. Yes, they really are that good, and I have been discovering a new interest in American history, particularly that of New Orleans and Louisiana.
With Dead and Buried, the ninth book of the series, the story opens on the scene of a funeral, where a young man of the sang melee is being buried. Rameses Ramilles was a neighbor of Benjamin January when he was growing up, and the two had often played together as musicians, with Ramilles being a talented flute player. Now fever has carried him off, leaving behind a young widow and small children. And at the funeral, the two mothers-in-law are ready to gouge each others' eyes out, little dramas are played out, but the real surprise comes when the coffin is carried to the above ground crypt. Someone drops his corner, the casket slides into a brick wall and the body tumbles out.
Problem is, it's not Rameses Ramilles. Who is there is a white man of middling age, well-dressed, and very very dead. Who it is no one knows, except that there's going to be one hell of a stink raised. And it seems that one of the spectators does know who the dead body is -- none other than Hannibal Sefton, who is going through a very nasty shock. The funeral descends into chaos, and it is Benjamin January who is asked by the local policeman, Abishag Shaw to find out the truth.
The case itself is filled with pitfalls, for the man inside the coffin is Patrick Derryhick, a visitor from the British Isles who is accompanying a young nobleman, Viscount Foxford, who is thinking about investing in the cotton plantations. We learn from the onset that Hannibal went to school with Derryhick at Oxford, and Hannibal has no intentions of talking -- he's planning to get very drunk, and stay that way for a while. The young Viscount, who was very fond of his Uncle Patrick, is immediately a suspect, especially when bloody evidence turns up in his hotel room. The other members of the young man's entourage are shocked of course, but it seems that everyone had a bone to pick with Uncle Patrick and his wild influence over young Gerry, and all of them stand to profit if the Viscount is convicted and hung for murder.
And there are further complications, for it seems that the Viscount was very interested in a young lady of New Orleans, Isobel Deschamps, a white girl of good family and rumours that there was a budding romance between the two. Enter Lord Montague Blessingcourt, a bombastic Englishman that seems to have a hold over Isobel and further complications are raised when it turns out that the Viscount, Lord Montague and Isobel were all together in Paris the previous year, and only a few days before the murder of Uncle Patrick, had a confrontation at a society ball in New Orleans.
Obviously, something more is lurking under the surface. No one really believes that the Viscount murdered his uncle, but the young man is sick and languishing in the notorious Cabaldo, someone certainly wants Benjamin and Hannibal to stop poking their noses into the case, and the question still remains, where is Rameses Ramilles?
I was very pleasantly surprised by this one what with the complex plot, the hints of Hannibal Sefton's past, and one shocker of an ending. This was certainly a top notch historical mystery, full of second guesses, a tightly woven plot, and plenty of motives to want a man dead and forgotten. The writing is, as always, very good, full of literary allusions, and clever twists -- those who know their Shakespeare will have a field day with this one -- and keen observations of ordinary people.
Some great touches here are the return of two characters in a previous novel, Madeleine and Augustus Meyerling; the rich life of New Orleans such as the food and music, and a secondary plot involving the funds of a burial society that have Benjamin playing piano in a brothel owned by the exotic Countess Mazzini. It's these little details that make the story come alive and the setting very believable and enthralling. Too, Ms. Hambly allows the outside world to slip in from politics, cultural observations, and the tricky problems of being a free person of colour in a society where slavery is very real and at times brutally violent. One of the things that I truly admire about Ms. Hambly's series is that she is able to take on the very complicated issue of race and slavery in the antebellum South and does it with style and a great deal of tact -- she shows it as it was, without slipping into clichés or stupidity, and shows things as they were -- a very fluid society that had plenty of nuances, and without any preachy undertones to it.
I give this one a solid five stars and a big thumbs up. It's a great novel, with plenty of things to think about, a plot that makes sense by the end, and the return of some very interesting characters. Very much recommended.
Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly:
A Free Man of Color
Sold Down the River
Die Upon a Kiss
Days of the Dead
Dead and Buried -- you are here
The Shirt On His Back
Good Man Friday
Many thanks to the Books CL, Dramastef who was able to add this title to the database for me.
This review is part of talyseon's It's Elementary My Dear Watson! Mystery Write-off.
Dead and Buried
2010; Severn House Publishers