November 3, 2013

The Wrong Body

I apologize for misnumbering some of the previous novels. Dead Water is the eighth not the ninth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series.

In Dead and Buried, the ninth novel in the series, Hambly inserts a disclaimer of sorts at the end of the book: “It is not the purpose of this novel to explore the origins and ramifications—political, social, and psychological—of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, nor the entangled and tragic system of prejudice and laws that made up the one-drop rule….” Though she doesn’t explore the origins of the rule, she certainly explores the social ramifications it had on individuals and families, and, as a good storyteller should, does so in an entertaining way. To say more about the theme of Dead and Buried might spoil your enjoyment, so I will not discuss the theme, except to say that Hambly handles it very well.

The attendants at the funeral of Rameses Ramilles, a fellow musician of Benjamin January’s, are horrified when the pall bearers drop the coffin and out falls the body of a white man. Hannibal Sefton, another fellow musician, recognizes the dead man as Patrick Derryhick, a friend from his youthful, carefree days in England.

Benjamin helps arrange a party to search for Ramilles’s body because the police will not search the swamp for "A black man's corpse, particularly after a week or two in the river….” Seeing how the body of his friend upset Hannibal and wanting to know how Ramilles’s body was removed from the coffin and replaced with Derryhick’s body, Benjamin, with approval of police investigator Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans City Guards, helps with the investigation.  

It doesn’t take long for them to learn that Derryhick was with a party of Englishmen who came to New Orleans so the youngest, Germinus Stuart, the 12th Viscount Foxford, could pursue the French Creole beauty, Isobel Deschamps, whom he had met in Paris. The other two members of the party are his uncle Diogenes and the business manager of the Stuart estate, Caius Droudge.

The plot turns on the romance between the young lovers, Isobel and Germinus, and involves labyrinthine family secrets of both. They met in Paris while Isobel was visiting relatives and Germinus was vacationing. Something happened that caused Isobel to flee Paris and return to New Orleans. Soon after her return, she leaves the city for Natchitoches Parish.

After items belonging to Derryhick are found in his hotel room, Germinus is arrested and charged with the murder. He refuses to admit he knows Isobel and to say where he was when Derryhick was killed. For Benjamin, the answer to Germinus’s silence lies upriver in Natchitoches Parish, in the St. John Chapel in Cloutieville. So, once again we follow him into danger of being captured and sold into slavery as he travels without either of his safety valves, Hannibal or Shaw. He is sure that what he finds will also provide the motive for the murder of Derryhick, which will lead to the murderer.

In the subplot, Benjamin suspects Martin Quennell, brother of the funeral direct, of embezzling money from the Faurbourg Treme Free Colored Militia and Burial Society of which Benjamin is a board member and Martin the bookkeeper. Martin also may have information about a quarrel between Derryhick and another man before Derryhick was murdered. But before Hannibal can get the information out of him, Martin is killed.

No Benjamin January novel would be complete without Ben’s Catholic belief coming up against his skepticism. He often relies on folk characters to ease his fears. So it is with "Compair Lapin" or Brer Rabbit, the trickster whom he calls upon when he wants to escape danger from white planters or thugs.

Hambly hits two discordant notes in this otherwise neatly plotted mystery. In the funeral scene, Hambly tells us nothing about Pere Eugenius, the only other white man present, and doesn’t mention him again.

The ingenious method the villain uses to replace Ramilles’s body with Derryhick’s stretches plausibility but the novel is still exciting.

To readers who follow my blog: thank you.

1 comment:

Bethany Jones said...

Looks really interesting!