For years I have been reading the science fiction and fantasy novels of author Barbara Hambly, and enjoying them mightily. But in recent years, she has been branching out into the genres of mystery and historical novels as well, and in her Benjamin January series, she has combined them both, with excellent results.
The year is 1835 or so, and Benjamin January has returned to New Orleans to find a sense of himself after the loss of his beloved wife in the city of Paris. And it seems that January has managed to do that, except for one small matter -- in New Orleans, he is considered to be a 'Free man of Colour,' for his African ancestry. Working as a piano player, and having learned the hard way that most people would not choose a black physician if they can help it, January keeps finding himself caught between two very different worlds in the cosmopolitan New Orleans of the day.
In Die Upon a Kiss, an Italian impresario, Belagio, and his troop of opera stars have arrived in New Orleans to premiere of all things, Belagio's Othello. And Benjamin January knows that no good can possibly come from it, especially in New Orleans, as it concerns that famous play by Shakespeare where a black man murders his white wife in a fit of jealous rage. And in a racial, slave-owning city such as New Orleans, staging such a story could be dangerous, to say the very least.
In the opening pages, the impresario is set upon by street thugs, and it's Benjamin January who rescues him. Belagio is furious and he thinks that it was a rival theatre owner who has arranged the attack. But January isn't quite so certain that is the real reason. He starts his own quiet investigation into the matter, and finds out more than he bargained for. In the meantime, New Orleans is caught up in Carnival, the merry making time before Mardi Gras and the start of Lent.
As Benjamin January starts to sift through the likely suspects, we discover the two rival sopranos, Consuelo Montero and D'Isola, a group of Italian tenors that seem inseparable, and the crew of stagehands; a dandy about town, Vincent Marsan, who insists that his clothing and accessories always match; Big Lou, a slave that seems to be impervious to pain, and Marguerite Scie, the ballet mistress who happens to be a former lover of January's.
Mixed up in all this is January's friends and family, among them a fellow musician named Hannibal; his sister Dominique, a placee -- the mistress -- of a wealthy planter; Incantobelli, a striking castrato who may have a grudge against Belagio, and even the mysterious Mamzelle Marie, and other denizens in the city. How all these people and threads get sorted out as the tensions build and the story builds to quite a climax.
What can I say? Barbara Hambly is in fine form here, with a detailed, intricately plotted story about race, jealousy, love and opera, all built around a scheme that is horrifying to our modern minds. I was caught up from the first page, and found each revelation to be just another twist in the over all tale. In addition to the narrative, there is an author's note that goes into more detail about the historical setting and a look at what opera meant and was used for during the period.
For those of you out there who demand that their mysteries have a healthy dose of historical background, here's a series that is both unusual and involving and a real delight to read. Some may take offense at the frank content and some of the language here, but all in all, it's an excellent read.
While it is part of a series, I found that this novel did stand very well on its own, and while there was a little bit of history here in this one, I came away feeling that I knew the characters very well, and intend to find out more with the preceding novels in the series.
Four and a half stars rounded up to five. Very much recommended.
Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly:
A Free Man of Color
Sold Down the River
Die Upon a Kiss -- you are here
Days of the Dead
Dead and Buried
The Shirt On His Back
Die Upon a Kiss
2001; Bantam Books, Random House Inc.
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