February 1, 2014

An Anemic Novel

Since amateur detective Benjamin January married an Arab woman in Paris, where his mother's protector sent him to study medicine and music, we should have expected Hambly to sooner or later write a novel with the centuries old conflict between Islam and Christianity as a backdrop. She makes an anemic attempt to use the religious conflict in Ran Away, the eleventh novel in her Benjamin January series.
A Muslim, known as the Turk in New Orleans, who saved the life of Benjamin’s former wife Ayasha when he lived in Paris, is accused of throwing two of his concubines out of the attic window of his house, allegedly for stealing some gold from him. Benjamin feels obligated to prove the man did not do kill the girls because the Turk saved his wife Ayasha when he lived in Paris.

A little over a third of the novel is the backstory of Benjamin’s time in Paris, where he met his first wife, Ayasha, who died of cholera in 1833, and the circumstances under which he met the Turk, Huseyin Pasha in 1827. Benjamin found that his skills as a musician earned him more money than his surgical skills because, even in enlightened France, no white person would allow a black doctor to work on him or her. The Turks have no such qualms, so Benjamin is called upon to attend Shamira, a young Jewish woman in Huseyin Pasha’s harem. He realizes she has been poisoned but will live, and also that, if he doesn’t get her out of the house before the master arrives, he might lose his life. He need not worry, however, because Jamilla, Huseyin Pasha’s number one wife who called upon his service, helps him escape. The next day she calls upon him again to find Shamira who has run away.

Sabid al-Muzaffar, Huseyin Pasha’s enemy, is also looking for Shamira. Ayasha knows that Shamira is at a convent and hurries to warn her and help her get away before Sabid al-Muzaffar and the police arrive. Unfortunately, Ayasha is caught. Benjamin learns from one of the street urchins who sometime help him that Ayasha is being held in Sabid al-Muzaffar’s house. Huseyin Pasha, believing Sabid al-Muzaffar might have kidnapped Shamira arrives and helps Benjamin free Ayasha. To tell you how would be a spoiler.

Ten Years later in New Orleans, Benjamin has the opportunity to repay the Turk when Oliver Breche, an apothecary, claims he saw him throw the two girls, Karida and Noura, out of the window. His claim, however, is suspect because he was in love with Noura and wants to prevent Jamilla from claiming her body so that he can give Noura a Christian burial in his family crypt. In addition to searching for evidence to clear the Turk, Benjamin must find a way to protect Jamilla and her son from the mob, egged on by Breche, surrounding their house.

The novel is not without merits. It has a red herring that leads the reader and Benjamin down the wrong path, and the identity of the murderer is a true surprise. The backstory gives the reader a more detail history of Benjamin’s time in Paris as a young man. Another merit is the skillful way Hambly keeps the reader guessing about identity and motive of the murderer.

Nevertheless, the novel is a letdown. The plot incidents seem contrived. It reads too much like the author had to fulfill a contract and therefore had to come up with a plot. The subplot involving Pasha and Sabid, after the action shifts to time present in New Orleans, does nothing to advance the main plot and seems designed merely to get Benjamin into another dangerous adventure and to tie up loose ends of the backstory. 

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