May 4, 2013

The Amateur Becomes a Professional

Benjamin January in the first three novels in Barbara Hambly’s historicalamHhhh 

HhhHhhh       ; ggg   33211 series about a free man of color in 1930s New Orleans is an amateur detective pressed into service to save himself, a relative, or a friend. In Sold Down The River, the fourth novel in the series, Benjamin, in a sense, becomes a professional investigator when he is offered payment for his services.

Simon Fourchet, the master who owned Benjamin, his mother, his father, and his sister on the Bellefleur plantation, has come to New Orleans to ask Benjamin’s help in finding out who is trying to kill him on his new plantation. Two events on the plantation convinced Fourchet that someone is trying to kill him. His butler Gilles, who had the habit of sneaking a nip of the master’s whiskey, died from poison after his recent nip. The slave Reuben died in the mill fire that Fourchet believes was deliberately started by someone who wants to ruin him. He offers Benjamin $500 for his services.

Benjamin hates the cruel slave master who broke his ribs when he was six and stuffed his mother Livia in a barrel as punishment for disobedience. St. Denis Janvier bought the family, except for the father, from Fourchet, freed them, and Livia became his mistress. Benjamin and Olympe took his surname. Janvier made sure Benjamin got the best musical and medical education.

He can’t understand why Livia wants him to help Fourchet simply so he can repay the $100 he owes her. However, he realizes the $500 will allow him to move out of her house into a place of his own. The opportunity to escape her nagging and arguments by his friend Rose and his sister Olympe persuade Benjamin to take the job. They point out that if the culprit is not caught, the white planters in the area might decide that a slave rebellion is in the making and go on a killing rampage. Thus, Benjamin could prevent a possible massacre.

Benjamin goes undercover as a field slave on Fourchet’s Mon Triomphe plantation. He knows how to be subservient and not reveal his intelligence to the white planters. But the other slaves are a different matter, for anyone of them, especially the house slaves, might discover he isn’t who he pretends to be and expose him. Another danger is a slave trader might see the six feet three inch tall, 200 pound Benjamin January as a profitable piece of merchandise—the perfect field slave—and sell him up the river to the owner of a cotton plantation.

Hambly continues her complex plotting in this novel depicting the hard life of slave on a  sugar plantation, especially for the slaves of a brutal, tyrannical master, and the internal slave trade—slaves from Louisiana are sold to the cotton planters up river. The number of suspects further complicates the plot: Fourchet’s neighbor, all the slaves on the plantation, Fourchet’s two sons, his young wife, and the wife of his son Robert are suspects.

To give the plot authenticity and relief from the cruelty and violence depicted in the novel, she adds some humor in Sold Down The River through the field slave Harry, a trickster who barters goods with other slaves on other plantations. She also shows the men relaxing and joking, playing the dozens, a game I played as a boy and that is still played today. In the game, each player insults the other by talking about his relatives, especially his mother or sister. Benjamin secures his place among the slaves when he displays his skill at the game.

What I liked most about the novel is the irony of an ex-slave going to work for his former master who agrees to pay him.