Monday, August 29, 2011

The Shirt On His Back by Barbara Hambly

When every bank in the country crashes in the wake of a Presidential election, Benjamin January is one of the people affected in New Orleans- but not as badly as some. While he loses everything in the bank, he was far-sighted enough to have paid off his mortgage on his house where he lives with his wife, Rose, and which she uses as a school. But times are hard for each of them. Ben taught the children of the wealthy to play the piano during the lean times in New Orleans, while Rose ran her school year-round. Now, both of them have lost their students, and with it, their income, as everyone has been affected by the crashing banks.

And his other source of income, playing at parties around New Orleans, is also slipping away because of the bank crash. And that's when Rose drops the most stunning news of all- she is pregnant with Ben's child, making their monetary situation truly dire. But Salvation for Ben comes in the person of Abishag Shaw, the local lawman who Ben has often helped with his murder cases, and most of the time, ended up being the one who actually found the culprit. But Abishag Shaw doesn't need help with a New Orleans murder, but something more personal: someone has killed (and scalped) his younger brother, Johnny, and he wants Ben's help in finding the murderer. Best of all, he is willing to pay Ben for the help, so Ben quickly agrees, leaving Rose behind to weather the insect and sickness-filled summer in New Orleans while their child grows inside her. He promises to write down everything he sees in a journal to share with Rose, but at the same time, Ben cannot help but remember his first wife, Ayasha, and how she died of sickness while he was gone at his job in a Paris hospital as a Doctor, something that has haunted him ever since.

Coming along with Ben and Abishag is Ben's friend and former opium addict Hannibal Sefton. In their previous case together, Hannibal had met his son, but his son never knew Hannibal, and Hannibal wouldn't let Ben tell his son who Hannibal was. But the sight of the child left behind by circumstance made Hannibal kick his habit, and that of drinking as well, even though both came about through Hannibal trying to mitigate the conditions of his Tuberculosis/"Consumption". But even though his sickness still afflicts him, he has made the journey from New Orleans to what is now Wyoming, determined to make something better of his life.

But as Ben Abishag and Hannibal search for Frank Boden, Johnny Shaw's former roomate at the fort where he worked, and the one who everyone believes killed him, they run into another mystery at the gathering of the Mountain Men and fur trappers. For one thing, the body of an older man, naked except for a pair of black leather gloves, is found one night at a camp near the gathering, and a local wild man named Manitou flees the gathering. But what has he to do with the man's dead body? Was he the killer, or did he see the deed done? And what was this man doing out in the wilderness, as it is trenchantly obvious that he is a man who was not at home in the wilderness. Add to that the possibility of contagious disease wiping out the gathering when one group of trappers is found dead, and a band of Indians who would like nothing more than to wipe out every white man at the gathering for coming in and trapping the same animals for skins that the local Indians themselves once caught, and Ben and his companions are caught up in several situations that might kill him.

But as Ben does his best to resolve all the mysteries besetting him and find the murderer of Johnny Shaw, he finds himself enjoying a situation he never experienced in New Orleans- people accepting him for himself and not caring about his skin color. But just like any group of people, there are secrets among the trappers that would lead to them gladly killing Ben and his friends, and it is going to take all of Ben's skill at ferreting out secrets and keeping himself alive to bring the guilty to justice. And how can he do that when his fear that he will come back to New Orleans and find Rose and their baby dead is forever on his mind? Can he focus himself long enough to keep his mind on the case, or will the circumstances Ben finds himself in lead to his death in the lonely western mountains?

Benjamin is finally taken out of his comfort zone, and out of the city where just about every other novel in this wonderful series has been set, and here he finds himself finally accepted as just a man, and at the same time, in some of the most dangerous situations he has ever been in. Some of this is played for a bit of humor, with some of the local indians referring to Ben as a "White Man" despite the color of his skin, which he finds exasperatingly humorous. But it becomes clear that the Indians mean that in attitude, he's the same as a white man, and don't mean his skin color.

I found the stories of both deaths, John Shaw, and that of the old, dead man in the small camp, to be interesting. While the last book explored much of Hannibal's background, this did the same for Abishag Shaw, showing why he alone among his brothers John and Tom, received such an unusual name, and why he ended up leaving his home in the wilderness to become one of the city Police in New Orleans. We also see the depth of his commitment to the law after working as a guard for many years, and how that inevitably estranges him from his remaining brother by the end of the book. Mixed in with all this is the treatment of the insane and the view of Indian tribes towards the whites, and the puzzle of how committed Hannibal Sefton is to maintaining his sobriety in the midst of the Wilderness, with the temptations of strong drink and debauchery all around him.

I found this book fascinating to read, and amazing in how it shows us the Wild West through the eyes of an outsider- Benjamin January The worldbuilding in this novel is fascinating and I loved every moment, even when Ben and his friends were fighting for their lives. The strong backstories that underlay the book are amazing and meticulously crafted, bringing plenty of strong characters to the fore and providing as intricate a setting as any of the novels set in New Orleans, with a strong sense of time and place. Highly recommended.

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