Benjamin January is a Doctor in 1830's New Orleans. He's very learned and gentle, and he'd probably be very much in demand in higher society- if it wasn't for the color of his skin. Benjamin January is black, and not only is he black, he is a very dark black man, which means that his doctoring skills mostly go to slaves and a few free people of color, who aren't exactly thick on the ground in New Orleans. So instead of Doctoring being his main skill, he must play music to survive. He also plays the piano, quite beautifully, and it is for this skill he is most known in New Orleans.
He has also been solving mysteries in New Orleans, and his friend, Hannibal Sefton, a white fiddle player, has been along with him on some of his worst cases. But Benjamin isn't alone any more. Even though Ayesha, the woman he was married to in Paris when he studied to be a Doctor, is dead, Ben is now married to a free black woman, Rose, who runs a school for the children of Quadroons and Octoroons who want to educate their daughters. Even though most of them will end up as mere mistresses to white Men, Rose hopes that these young women will use their minds to do more than be empty ornaments.
Today, Benjamin is at the funeral of another free black man, Ramses Ramillies, hired to play music as part of the funeral procession. But when the coffin breaks, it isn't the body of Ramses Ramillies who rolls out of the coffin, but a young white man, and also known to Hannibal Sefton, a man named Patrick Derryhick, someone who Hannibal went to Oxford with.
Hannibal knows Derryhick, but at the same time, he wants to keep his anonymity. Hannibal is sick with a disease called "Consumption", better known as Tuberculosis. Normally, he drinks to deal with his sickness, and to be able to play the violin, which is his primary means of support. Now that people who knew him in his former life, before his sickness and coming to New Orleans, have shown up, Hannibal, whose disease is not currently active, he doesn't want them to find out what has happened to him. But if he helps Benjamin investigate the case- and he must because he knows these people as few others do, what has happened to him will be known when they finally get back to England.
Derryhick and those of his party were in New Orleans to supposedly purchase a plantation upriver. But all was not well between the members of the party. Derryhick was the one with the money, inherited from an aunt who had died. His youthful companion, the Viscount Foxford, Germanicus, had a family who believed that the money should have been theirs. They own many estates, but since most of them are entailed and can't be sold, their family is in relatively straitened circumstances, and they were counting on that money to retrieve them from debt.
Not only that, but Diogenes, Foxford's uncle, the man who was serving as "chaperone" says that Derryhick was believed to have killed the current Viscount Foxford's father. The current Viscount, Germanicus Stuart, says he didn't believe it, but who could claim differently if he is lying? And despite the story of why they are here in New Orleans, Benjamin discovers that it had turned more into a crawl through Pubs, Gambling Houses and Brothels
But how did Derryhick die, and how did his body get into the coffin meant for Ramses Ramillies? Well, that last one is relatively easy-the hotel rooms the party occupy overlook the area of the funeral home and mortuary. But when it comes to who murdered Patrick Derryhick and who wanted him dead, it seems there are more suspects than Ben and Policeman Abishag Shaw know what to do with? And can Ben find the killer before someone decides to kill an "interfering nigger" from poking his nose where it is least wanted? And what is Hannibal's connection to all of this?
I always love returning to Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January novels. Not because Ben's New Orleans is such a great or grand place. Grand it might be, but Ben is only allowed into those places through the servants door, and he must learn to take his place among the "colored" that most people in New Orleans regard as little better than trash. In short, unless your skin is white, you are constantly in danger. Even if you have papers which proclaim your freedom, they can be torn up and you can be re-enslaved at any time, especially when most of the police are corrupt.
It's not a comfortable place to be, by any means, even for white folks. It's still subject to seasonal flooding and rampant disease, like yellow fever and cholera. At any time, fresh outbreaks can mean a flood of deaths, all of whom must be buried above the ground in mausoleums because of the high water table. And flies and all sorts of bugs and other vermin abound. So no matter who you are, most life here is not comfortable and not pretty. And as bad as the Creoles are, the Americans behavior towards slaves are even worse. At least the Creoles treat their slaves as well as they do their livestock. For the Americans... not even that well.
That's why it's never comfortable to read these books. But while comfort may be lacking, thousands of people did live in New Orleans back then, and their lives are fascinating. white, black and mixed among them. We finally get to see how Europeans react to the racism of American and those living in New Orleans, which had only been part of the United States for about 30 years at this point. And the British people in this book (because these people come from Ireland as well as England) seem to have absorbed the dominant American attitudes towards Blacks, which was kind of disappointing, considering how well Hannibal and Benjamin get on.
But considering that the two men are equally adept at making music, and that Hannibal is dying of tuberculosis and Benjamin is a doctor, perhaps there is more to explain their friendship. In any case, this was an excellent mystery and a look at life in New Orleans in the late 1830's. The characters seem real, alive and are very much of their time and place. Each book lays bare more and more of New Orleans society, both at the high and low ends, and in that peculiar place that quadroons and Octoroons seem to occupy- a place neither high nor low, sort of like the Demimondaine in France.
Incidentally, the word Quadroon means 1/4 black. People back then parsed degree of "blackness" to an amazing and often insane degree, borne out that there are words for people who are partly black. A mulatto was half black, quadroon a 1/4, Octoroon 1/8, Mustee (which is rarely seen, but obviously, the word exists) 1/16 and a mustefino was 1/32. How insane does racism have to get before you have specific terms for someone who is 1/32 black?
Reading this book makes me a little angry at how Benjamin and his wife, Rose, are treated. (His mother is a quadroon and the mistress of a white man.) But on the other hand, I am drawn back to this series by just those things, and how different they are from how things are today. I highly recommend not only this book, but this entire series.