Traveling up the Mississippi River on a steamboat in the 19th century was a dangerous journey. The danger came not only from debris floating in the river and sand bars but also from outlaws prowling the river bank looking for the opportunity to attack. For runaway slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad and free Blacks it was even more dangerous because the runaways would be returned to their masters if caught and the free would be captured and sold into slavery. In Dead Water, the ninth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, Benjamin, his wife Rose, and their friend Hannibal Sefton face the dangers of river travel when they take on a case of robbery and murder.
Hubert Granville, president of the Bank of Louisiana, hires the dynamic trio, Benjamin, Rose, and Hannibal, to recovery four million dollars the bank manager, Oliver Weems, stole from the bank. For Ben and Rose, who naturally will accompanied him, it means going into the cotton country upriver--Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri—and the danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Since Benjamin and Rose deposited their money in the bank, Ben accepts the job provided that Granville will pay him $500 and agree to buy back him and Rose if they fall into the clutches of slave traders. As a second safe guard against such an eventuality, Hannibal travels with them disguised as their master.
The three travel upriver toward Memphis on the steamboat “Silver Moon.” Also on board are Weems, his mistress and partner in crime Mrs. Fischer, and two rival slave traders, Ned Gleet and Jubal Cain with their gangs of slaves—men and women chained together on deck. When the boat docks in Vicksburg, Rose remains on the boat while Ben and Hannibal follow Weems and Mrs. Fischer when they disembark along with the three trunks. After Hannibal gets a look at what’s in the trunks, he returns to the boat, leaving Ben to watch the two thieves. Ben knows he is in trouble when the thieves elude him, and he returns to the dock only to discover the boat has left. He faces the daunting task of making his way through the swamp along the river bank to spot where the boat will be near enough for him to swim to it. In addition to avoiding alligators, he must also watch out for the outlaw Levi Christmas and his gang who are searching for an opportunity to attack the “Silver Moon.”
Murder is not necessary for a good detective story, but it certainly makes a good story better and more interesting. I will not spoil Dead Water by revealing the name of the murdered character. Ben and Hannibal, in addition for searching for the three trunks full of gold, securities, and cash, must prove they are not the murderers. Luckily for them, they have Colonel Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis) who takes over the investigation and accepts Ben’s help, taking advantage of his medical and detection skills when a dead body is found on the boats big wheel.
Three elements in Dead Water made the novel more enjoyable for me. The first is the strong female villains and heroines. No damsels in distress.
The second is, in addition facing physical dangers, Ben also faces
the psychological demon that always seems to follow him. Although he is a devout Catholic and a skeptic when it comes to voodooism, he, nevertheless, often looks over his shoulder after confronting a voodoo priestess. Queen Regine puts a curse on Ben after he warns her to stay away from one of Rose’s students. Despite his skepticism about voodoo and his Catholic faith, Ben, feels Queen Regine’s presence every time he runs into obstacles that put his life in danger.
The third element is the motif of the Underground Railroad.
If you like reading crime fiction, you might enjoy reading blog posts by some crime fiction writers on the blog SleuthSayers.