August 3, 2013

A Slight Misstep

“You know what they say of white men in Louisiana…They come here seeking fortune, but all they find is a wet grave”

Should a critic confess that he can’t pin point why a novel by a novelist he has praised in the past is disappointing? Yes, and I so confess. No matter how good a storyteller a writer is, if she is also prolific and her main character is a series protagonist, the quality of her novels will, at some point, drop. Such is the case with the sixth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series.

In Wet Grave amateur detective Benjamin January and his friend Rose Vitrac, the deceptively beautiful and scholarly former girl’s school teacher, investigate two murders.

Benjamin’s sister Olympe summons him to view the body of an old, drunken Black woman. He immediately recognizes Hesione LeGros whom he last saw 23 years ago when he was 16 and playing the piano at a party for Jean Lafitte’s band of pirates. The two of them had hidden behind the piano when a fight broke out among the guests. In her younger days, she was the mistress of one of Lafitte’s pirate captains.

Knowing that the authorities will not come and take away the body or investigate the murder of an old free Black woman, an angry Ben with his friend Rose decides to find out who killed Hesione and why. The investigation leads them to one of Jean Lafitte’s former pirate captains named Cut-Nose Chighizola, who might tell them more about the dead woman.

The failure of the authorities to investigate Hesione’s death causes Ben to direct his anger at the one White policeman friend he has, the Kaintuck, Lieutenant Abishag Shaw. “Anger flared up in” Ben “briefly, like kindling. It ignited a bigger log, an anger that did not leap and glare but that burned slow and deep and hot.” But he knows it isn’t Shaw’s fault because, he says to Shaw, you are “doing your duty, and going where you’re sent.” In the subplot, Shaw is sent to the Avocet plantation to investigate the alleged killing of Guifford Avocet by his brother Robert.
Ben’s anger is further stoked when he and Rose learn that 16-year-old Artois St. Chinian, an octoroon Rose was tutoring, is killed because he mistakenly received a box containing guns instead of the vacuum pump he had ordered.

The investigation of the two murders propel Ben and Rose into a battle against rebelling slaves, criminals hunting for Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure, and a hurricane that brings ashore alligators and snakes.

Wet Grave is not filled with as much action as the preceding novels. The romance between Ben and Rose, though expected and necessary, slows the pace of the action somewhat. Furthermore, despite the danger in which Benjamin and Rose find themselves, I didn’t feel the tension the situation should generate and, consequently, I had no sense of relief once the danger had passed.

The slow pace is due primarily to a problem with all serial novels: the author has to repeat the backstory of the protagonist so that the novel stands alone, even though it is one in a series. At the same time, the author must provide continuity with the other novels in terms of setting and especially the serial protagonist.

A few days after finishing the novel, something still kept nagging at me in the back of my mind, clamoring that something was wrong. What’s wrong is the Avocet subplot does not fit. Hambly does a good job of completing the plot within itself, but, despite the need for it as a plot device, it often tends to distract from rather than advance the main plot.

Despite the flaws, Wet Grave is still readable due to the magic of Hambly’s storytelling. In this novel, Hambly is like a person climbing stairs and misses a step; she stumbles but rights herself and continues.