April 6, 2013


Graveyard dust is “a curse to the death”

No series of novels set in New Orleans would be complete without one about voodoo. Although voodoo is present in Barbara Hambly’s two previous Benjamin January novels, it is the explicit motif in the third novel in the series. In Graveyard Dust, the amateur detective’s Catholic faith is tested when someone tries to put a hoodoo spell on him.

Benjamin’s sister Olympe is arrested and charged with murder. She is accused of furnishing the poison a young wife allegedly used to kill her husband. Benjamin and those trying to help Olympe, including the voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, realize that the odds are against her. In the culture of the time, she is considered guilty because she is a voodooienne known among the voodoos as Olympia Snakebones. Benjamin also worries about Olympe’s health in the dirty, disease ridden jail because, though the authorities try to keep it quiet, Bronze John, as the yellow fever is called, is haunting the jail.

From Benjamin’s perspective: “Isaak Jumon was dead. Celie Jumon had bought something from Olympe, poisoner and voodooienne. That might be all the jury would hear.” He must find the real killer before the trial or Olympe is doomed.

Once he is on the trail of the real killer, danger comes at Benjamin from two sources, creating the tension that kept me reading. First is a physical threat from a paid assassin, a mountain man named Killdevil Ned, that causes Benjamin to constantly look over his shoulder as he traverses the rough and swampy areas of New Orleans. Killdevil is dangerous but not as threatening psychologically.

Benjamin fears most the psychologically threat because it plays on his mind. It comes from Mambo Oba, a voodooienne who makes evil jujus. When Benjamin finds a chicken foot under his mattress and graveyard dust on the floor in his room, he panics. He is a Catholic but all his life he has been around voodoo and is often ambivalent when confronted by the practice of voodoos, sometimes he fears it, and other times he doesn’t know what to think. He tells himself that voodoo isn’t real, that is superstition. But, true to his Catholic faith, he refuses Marie Laveau’s help because he doesn’t believe the gris-gris she gives him will protect him from the  juju he found in his room. God is his protector. For

God would keep him safe. In times past he’d worn a gris-gris Olympe had made for him and had prayed, half in jest, to Papa Legba as he’d now and them addressed the classical gods, like Athene or Apollo. But lately he’d put the gris-gris away, unsure what it meant to wear such a thing. To seek the help of the loa was, at beast, an act of mistrust in the goodness of the power of God.

And yet, he fears the voodoo demons.

...January had dreamed...of the demon Omulu, and of the red eyes watching him from within a sheep skull clotted with dry blood and ants. Waking, he had had to fight the desperate urge to tear mattress and pillows and bedding to pieces lest there be feathers in them twisted into the shape of a rooster or a cat. Lying in the darkness he had tried to think of all the places in the room where balls of black wax and graveyard dust might be secreted.

When he needs him the most, the boss voodoo god, Papa Legba, helps Benjamin as he chases a bad guy through the swamps. Hambly renders the scene so skillfully, that I wasn’t sure if Benjamin was communicating with Papa in reality or a hallucination.

In Graveyard dust Hambly continues the high quality of her storytelling through her skillful blend of plot and character. She makes the supernatural seem a part of the natural order of things. Most of all, the war between Christianity and voodoo going on in Benjamin’s mind provides more insight into his personality, revealing the complexity of his character. Rose, the free woman of color that Benjamin showed great affection for in Fever Season reappears. Will the two of them ever get together?