March 3, 2014

The Case of the Missing Accountant

In Good Man Friday, the 12th and most recent novel in her Benjamin January series, Barbara Hambly skillfully puts together a fascinating plot involving a missing person, a closed-door mystery, and a number puzzle.

The amateur sleuth’s next adventure takes him to Washington City when Chloe Viellard, the young woman we met in Wet Grave, and her husband Henri, Dominique’s protector, hire him to find Chloe’s friend the Englishman Selwyn Singletary, a self-made mathematical genius and an accountant for several European banks with whom she had been corresponding about mathematical theories.

Washington City, the capital of the United States of America in 1838, was little more than a cow town as seen through the eyes of Benjamin January’s younger sister Dominique January:

…Minou gazed around her at the vacant fields. Cows grazed peacefully between widely-scattered houses, pigs rooted in roadside ditches. Even this close to the center of Washington—a roughly built-up rectangle that stretched from the President's House to a bit beyond the Capitol two miles away—the houses were countrified, set back from the unpaved streets and surrounded by chicken coops, cow barns, vegetable gardens and orchards.
Benjamin again finds himself in financial difficulty after a white planter who lost $10,000 on a slave boxing match blames him and persuades his friends not to hire Benjamin during the height of the carnival season. Abishag Shaw, Benjamin’s police friend, has no work for him. He is therefore forced to take the job that again will take him away from his wife and son. In one of his letters Singletary told Chloe that he was coming to America to take a teaching position at the University of Virginia. Once he reached Washington City, he disappeared.

Benjamin’s fellow sleuths helping him matches wits against a very clever spy and thief are Henri, Chloe, and Dominique. Edgar Allan Poe happens to be staying in the same boarding house as Benjamin and Dominique, a boarding house owned and operated by a free couple of color. In adding Poe, Hambly did something very difficult: inserting a real historical figure in the story and making him or her believable. Poe is instrumental in helping Benjamin solve a number puzzle in a notebook that, before he disappeared, Singletary left with the only person he trusted, a slave named Ganymede Tyler.

Ganymede’s owner is his half-brother, Luke Bray, who calls him his “Good Man Friday.” Ganymede doesn’t understand the numbers but feels the notebook is important and gives it to Benjamin. Benjamin and Poe spend a great deal of time trying to solve the puzzle that might help them find Singletary and explain why he disappeared and also lead to the person who broke into his locked room and killed “Good Man Friday.”

As in all the Benjamin January novels, the amateur detective must avoid capture by slave stealers and traders. However, his sister Dominique and her daughter Charmian are captured, and it is up to Benjamin and Poe, along with the a few of the free men of color living in the boarding house, to free them before they are sold south. Hambly makes the adventure an essential part of the and not incidental to the plot.

Except for the clumsiness of the prologue, which is used to set up Benjamin’s negative financial situation, the narrative is tightly controlled with no wasted scenes or characters. The subplot provides the social context for the main plot and shows the precarious position of free men and women of color in a slave society that proclaims all men are created equal. It involves the game of Town Ball, a form of cricket. Although the free colored men aren’t technically allowed to play the game, they have formed teams and play outside the city limits without interference from the sheriff because he wins money betting on the best team to win. When the best colored team beats a French team, which had beaten the American team of white men, there is a clamor for the white American team to play the colored team. What will happen to the colored players if they win?

A Free Man of Color is the best of Hambly’s Benjamin January novels. A Good Man Friday is the second best. All the Benjamin January novels tell one story: the survival of an intelligent black man in a society determined to, if not kill him, then bring him low.

The Benjamin January novels are not only enjoyable but also educational. They depict an accurate picture of slavery during the 19th century in the United States.

1 comment:

Kelly Robinson said...

I overlooked this one when it posted, but another excellent review, as usual.