Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton

Abilgail Adams is the wife of John Adams, one of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty in Colonial Boston. But when she goes to visit her friend Rebecca Malvern, the separated wife of Charles Malvern, an elderly merchant, she has a horrible shock- for a woman is dead in Rebecca's rented house, horribly mutilated and sitting at her Kitchen table.

Whoever the woman is, she is definitely rich, with diamonds in her ears and a silk dress much finer than any normal American woman can claim, especially one of the poor ones like Abigail or Rebecca. Abigail is relieved that the dead body isn't that of her friend, but at the same time, she is concerned. Where is Rebecca? Being careful not to walk in the blood and observing carefully, she determines that Rebecca was injured- possibly hit on the head and imprisoned in one of the upstairs rooms, but she escaped.

Hoping to find her friend, she summons her husband's brother, Sam Adams, to the scene, but he is more worried about a book of ciphers that Rebecca had in her house, labelled "Household accounts", but containing the ciphers used by the Sons of Liberty at their meetings. For Rebecca was Thoroughgoing patriot, who wrote poems and screeds under the name "Cloetia". Indeed, Abigail finds a note in the dead woman's pocket using just that name. But who was she and why was she in Rebecca's house?

That answer comes soon enough. Shortly after Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty sanitize the crime scene, they pretend to "Discover" the body. But in the meantime, Abigail pays a visit to Rebecca's husband to inform him that his wife has disappeared, and a woman has been murdered in her home. At first, he is shocked- it appears he may still care for his wife, but then he blusters and drives Abigail out of his house and physically abuses his negro servant, Scipio, when Scipio promises to send her the location of Rebecca's former maid, whom Abigail hopes Rebecca might have taken refuge with.

But she comes home to redcoats accusing her husband of the crime of murdering the woman, who is revealed to be Perdita Pentyre, a woman married to a rich merchant of Boston, but who was also the lover of Colonel Leslie of the Crown Garrison on Castle Island. And the Captain is certain that John Adams is her killer. But Abigail is infuriated that they would suspect her husband of the deed, and John agrees to sign a bond of good conduct that will fine him 30 pounds in gold if he leaves Boston. The Captain agrees, and the next day. John travels to the island to do just that.

Meanwhile, the Sons of Liberty all search for Rebecca, and a young Deacon named Orion Hazlitt is most anxious for Rebecca to be found alive. He bears tender feelings for her, but his mother feels that any woman who shows an interest in him is a Jezebel, a painted harlot who wants nothing more than to lead him away from righteousness and into sin. But her own obsession with her son, which includes calling hm "My little King" and treating him as if he was her lover and not her son, worry Abigail greatly. Orion seems worried and upset by his mother's behavior and her clinging to him as if he was everything to her world, even as he relies on ever-greater doses of laudanam to control her.

Abigail travels to the place where Rebecca's former maid now lives, only to discover that she hasn't seen Rebecca for years. However, to get there, Abigail and Thaxter, her husband's apprentice in the law, must travel through a small hamlet named Gilead, where the inhabitants are fanatical about their religion, and their priest claims to see the spirits of the devil come to torment him and the town, including the nine daughters of Eve, sinful women who live to trap and bring down righteous men. After a long and tiresome sermon on the topic of the snares that await the righteous, Abigail and Thaxter are given the hospitality of the community, such as it is.

But on the way back to Boston, Abigail and Thaxter come on the British Redcoat Captain Coldstone and his Sergeant, an Irish boy named Muldoon, being attacked by a group of men. Abigail and Thaxter come to the men's rescue, and help Muldoon get Coldstone back onto his horse and back to the closest inn while she and Thaxter ride for Boston. Soon, Coldstone comes to request her help in finding who murdered Perdita Pentyre. He also brings the unwelcome news that she was not the only woman to be slain this way- a hairdresser named Zuleika and a a prostitute were both murdered nearly two years ago, with the same facial and body mutilations. However, after their murders, there were no more like them in Boston-until now.

But who murdered the other two women, and was the murder of Perdita a copycat murder, or a murder by the same person or persons unknown? When she undertakes to solve the murders and find the killer, she will end up putting her own life at risk, because only then will she be able to find the murderer... and her friend.

I liked this book. It's a first in a new series, and the author is a pseudonym of Barbara Hambly, which means she is definitely not a new author. I've read several other of her books, both fantasy/horror and mystery both ("Those Who Hunt The Night" and "A Free Man of Color" being examples of each- but not an exhaustive list by any means), and have enjoyed everything that I have read by her, and now this new book comes along to give me something else of hers to love!

Those who know about Abigail Adams know that, like her husband John and his brother Sam, she could be something of a firebrand in her own way. She vigorously argued for female suffrage during the revolution, and certainly had ideas about women and their place in society that many men of the time must have felt quite threatened by- but her husband apparently didn't, and their relationship was as much on the mental plane as the physical and emotional (He calls her "Philomena" and she calls him "Leander"- names out of classical greek myth- as both were quite learned.

But here, Abigail becomes a detective, and her sharp mind and wit are admirably suited for the task. She is seemingly the only one who wants to find Rebecca for Rebecca, and not for the ciphers she is holding (like Sam Adams and many of the other Sons of Liberty). The true perpetrator is well-hidden in the book, and I suspected more than a few people before the true culprit became clear.

Some of the best parts of the book are Abigail's ruminations on the role of women in her culture and society as she lives her life and attempts to solve the murder of Perdita Pentyre, as well as doing the same for colored servants/slaves that she meets in town. There's one scene that might make some readers uncomfortable- when she meets her husband and other "Sons of Liberty" masquerading as "Red Indians" shortly before the Boston Tea Party. The group exhibit all the depth of hackneyed and stereotyped Movie Indians, who can only say the word, "Ugh!" Yeah, that's how I felt, too. "Ugh!" indeed. But thankfully, that is only one tiny scene in a book that is just amazingly good.

Anyone who enjoys Historical mysteries or mysteries with a female detective will want to pick up and read this book. It's occasionally disturbing and/or wince-inducing, but there are few writers who can compete with Barbara Hambly when it comes to characterization and detail in writing. This new series is a delight, and one I am very much looking forward to reading the sequels to. Highly recommended.

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