“As always, I have tried to tell a story to the best of my ability, without doing violence to what I’ve been able to find out about a time, a place, and attitudes very different from our own.” Barbara Hambly, Die Upon A Kiss
Die Upon A Kiss, the fifth novel in Hambly’s Benjamin January series, the amateur detective finds himself caught up in a conspiracy involving spies, slave smugglers, and murder. He again becomes a professional investigator when his friend John Davis, owner of the French theater and the man who gave young Benjamin his first job as musician, pays him to find out who killed an important member of the St. Mary Opera Society. The Society is sponsoring the American Theater’s presentations of an Italian opera company. Davis is accused of murdering the member though no one can say what his motive was or when he had the opportunity to do so. He is not only owner of the rival opera company, he also owns a profitable gambling casino. But his real crime is being French while the officials who accuse him and will judge him are American and rival businessmen.
The sustained and rising tension begins immediately in the first sentence. As Benjamin leaves the theater through the rear door and steps into the alley, he hears the word “nigger” and is on guard. He saves from the two attackers Lorenzo Belaggio, the Italian impresario who heads the company of actors that the owner of The American Theater has brought to the city. Relieved that the men weren’t after him, Benjamin wonders why they attacked the impresario, but Belaggio claims he doesn’t know.
Benjamin speculates that a member of the St. Mary Opera Society might have hired the two thugs to send Belaggio a message: don’t stage the opera “Othello”? Benjamin tries to explain to Belaggio to no avail that the White folks, especially the Americans, will not tolerate an opera in which a Black man kisses and then kills a White lady.
Benjamin discovers two of the Italian actors believe Belaggio is a spy for the Austrian government giving information about the Italian government’s operations in the US. Another suspect is Incantobelli, the real author of the version of “Othello” that Belaggio is staging. He is angry that Belaggio is taking credit for his work. In addition the three suspects, Benjamin also has to deal with the rivalry between two women both of whom want to be the prima donna, and consider whether their rivalry has any connection to the attack on Belaggio.
In Die Upon A Kiss, Hambly has proven again her masterly use of red herrings and misdirection, the two ingredients necessary to sustain the tension and suspense in a good mystery. She also does an excellent job of weaving into the intricate plot how opera was performed in 1830s New Orleans, especially the American idea of substituting American songs for the Italian to attract a larger audience, which conveys a sense of the time, place, and people.
Of the five novels in the Benjamin January series that I have read thus far, Die Upon A kiss is the best.