Friday, January 6, 2023

Short Book Reviews: Tippecanoe and Murder, Too

 Death and Hard Cider, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

When I open a Barbara Hambly novel, whether a 1920s Hollywood mystery, a fantasy-with-dragons, or a disturbingly dark vampire tale, I’m in for a treat. Hambly’s touch is deft, never overwrought, her knowledge of history and human nature unerring, and her characters, memorable. One of my favorites is Benjamin January, born a slave in early 19th Century Louisiana, freed and then educated as a surgeon (and musician) in Paris, now back in New Orleans. Over the course of the preceding volumes, he’s cobbled together a living as a musician playing at parties and other events by the rich whites of the city, while solving more mysteries than a raft of Sherlock Holmses, despite the intricate mores of the old French culture and the encroaching danger of the American way of slavery. He’s in constant danger of being kidnapped, his freedom papers destroyed, and being sold to a plantation and a short, brutal life in the sugar cane fields. Despite all this, he has married an extraordinary Black woman and made more than a few friends, some of them white. The one thing he’s never wanted to get involved with is American politics.

But it’s 1840 and William Henry Harrison is running for president. The campaign involves a monumental rally with speeches, fireworks, balls, and dinner parties, and Ben badly needs the meager pay in an otherwise dead season. In the midst of the campaign, a privileged young white woman, a determined flirt notorious for setting her suitors against each other, is found murdered. Suspicion lands, quite illogically, on a Black woman, Catherine, Ben’s dear friend and first, unrequited love.

As with previous Ben January mysteries, the fascinating historical detail, plot twists, engaging characters, and deeply felt but restrained emotion kept me turning the pages. This book continues the earlier focus on the precarious condition of Black people in pre-Civil War New Orleans. It seemed to me, however, that the contradictions, turmoil, and simmering anger of Ben and his community came to the fore more powerfully. Perhaps that is due to the countdown to the Civil War or the grinding decades of oppression and fear, the perpetual risk of enslavement and necessity of humbling himself before men who cannot compare with his education, culture, and achievements, let alone his intelligence and innate decency. These feelings are among the things Ben dares not share with his few white friends (the unwashed but shrewd sheriff, the ex-addict Latin-quoting violinist), yet are instantly understood by the entire Black community.

Like all of Hambly’s work, highly recommended.

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