Pros: A very unusual setting and compelling plot, all done with Hambly's usual finesse.
Cons: Rose not being involved, no map, no author's note at the end. Phooey.
One of the greatest pleasures that I have had this year has been discovering the Benjamin January novels by Barbara Hambly, full of insights into the American mind before the Civil war, and with a protagonist who is truly unusual -- a 'free man of colour' in New Orleans by the name of Benjamin January.
Benjamin, born into slavery, has by diligence of great hard work and the generosity of a white owner, has managed to build himself a life in New Orleans, by working as a musician and surgeon. He has even managed to marry his beloved Rose, and start her dream of teaching young women of fellow sang melees to have the ability to rise out of poverty and class restrictions. But disaster strikes when all across United States banks fail and their finances are wiped out.
It's a dire situation, especially when Rose announces that she is going to have a child, something that both parents want. But without money, they're not going to be able to keep their home or their school, and things aren't looking to prosper in the near future either. But when the lieutenant of the Town Guard, Abishag Shaw, shows up an opportunity comes that will assure their solvency for a while.
Shaw, rawboned Appalachian man that he is, has managed to strike up a friendship with Benjamin, unlikely as it is. And the pair at least respects one another very much, even if neither of them would actually come right out and say that they are friends. Shaw has received a letter from one of his brothers, far out in the American west working as a clerk in one of the forts that the States maintains in the Oregon Territory. Their youngest brother, Johnny, has been murdered, and Tom wants Shaw to come out and get that lowlife. What scanty information that they have points towards the killer being at a mountain man rendezvous on the Green River. Tom will arrange for Shaw and Benjamin to escort a load of trade goods out to the rendezvous as their cover so that they can bring the killer to justice. And if that means killing the man on the spot, Tom doesn't mind one bit.
Benjamin takes the job -- after all, several hundred dollars in cash is hard to turn down -- even though it means that he has to leave Rose behind. Even more surprising, Hannibal Sefton is accompanying them on their journey, even though his health is wretched -- but he's also having a hard time staying in New Orleans due to recent events.
When they arrive at the rendezvous, the festivities are in full swing. The mountain men itinerate trappers living in the wild and hunting and trading among the native tribes for the lush fur pelts that the more civilized world is demanding. In exchange for the furs, the men are trading for gunpowder, shot, clothing and supplies, and especially hard liquor. To supply all this, a temporary town has been set up on the banks of the Green River, and for a month, there are raucous parties, tall tales, drinking, and general mayhem. And when there is money to be spent, there are women as well, from the prostitutes to the temporary 'wives' that come from the local Indians.
To say that Benjamin is rather unforgettable in this crowd is a bit of a misnomer. But on the other hand, there's curious freedom here as well -- most of the people that he encounters don't seem to mind that he's black. Even though the Indians do refer to him as a 'white black man,' which causes him all sorts of consternation. Both his and Hannibal's musical skills are in great demand, and the daily life and people he encounters fill the letters that he is sending home to Rose.
Among the various people he meets are an English aristocrat with entourage in tow, a big burly mountain man named Manitou, a prostitute named Viente-y-cinge and her daughter Pia, and the Indian girl, Morning Star, who becomes Hannibal's wife for the duration of the rendezvous. For a time, they are busy just settling in, and learning what is what, but then word comes that their informant has been killed in a fight, and the search for the murderer seems to go cold.
But then an elderly man, missing his clothing except for his shirt, is found in a crude lean-to nearby. What is the most curious is that he has been neatly laid out, clearly by someone who was there, but who? And it is clear that he has been murdered by the bullet hole in his head and the knife wound in his back. Just who it is, well, there's the mystery, one that Shaw, Hannibal and Benjamin find themselves enmeshed in as time starts to run out, and the local tribes step up their own resentments against the mountain men...
This has to be one of the more unusual settings that I've seen in a mystery, and it works very well. One of the high points of reading a Barbara Hambly mystery for me are the rich details that she brings to her books. This was a world that I didn't know very much about, and I found the little details about the fur trade, the rough life and the unusual relationships between the trappers and the Indians very interesting to read about. I felt that I could almost hear the sounds and smell the wood smoke as I read, and each of the characters has a distinct personality and motivation to lead the reader along with. By the end, I felt for each of the characters, including the secondary ones, who were caught up in plenty of their own problems.
The one that struck me the most was Manitou, the isolating mountain man, who has plenty of his own demons to fight with, and his story was certainly the most tragic of the ones told here. Equally disturbing was the anger and plight of the Blackfoot and Crow tribes, who know their world is changing and they have no idea how to stop it or even slow it down. There are plenty of psychological issues and introspection, but never does Ms. Hambly slide into navel gazing or that sort of filler -- instead it gives us painful insight not into these lives from the past, fictional they may be, but also a glimpse into ourselves as well.
The only thing that I did not like was that Rose was relegated to the background, in the role of good wife and soon-to-be mother, she has become one of my favourite characters in the series, and it was sad that she wasn't making much of an appearance in this one. Too, I would have liked to see a map to know exactly where this rendezvous was taking place. Also missing was the author's note that usually appears in the Benjamin January novels, and I would have liked to know more about the setting of the novel. Still, despite these omissions, this was a good read.
Above all, Ms. Hambly can dish up a rousing good mystery, and serve it up with plenty of skill. Each novel of hers I enjoy immensely, and I am looking forward to her next book in this series, due sometime in 2012. While this could be read as a stand-alone, it does help to have read previous entries in the series, as there is by now a considerable backstory to the main characters.
This one I know I don't have to point out to the fans of the series -- they've no doubt already found copies for themselves, and those looking for a historical mystery set in the Old West should find this one to their liking. Plenty of plot, engaging characters and a world not much seen in fiction all add up to a great read for an evening or two.
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
Days of the Dead
Dead and Buried
The Shirt On His Back -- you are here
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.
The Shirt on His Back
2011; Severn House Publishers, Ltd.