Once again exercising her talent for goldstained description, Hambly moves from a stylish fin de siÂ²cle tale of Continental vampirism (Traveling with the Dead, 1995) to an equally stylish romantic suspenser set in New Orleans. The author focuses on the delicate, twilit world of color in New Orleans in the 1830s, striving to capture both the city's exotic strangeness and an absolute sense of physical reality. Despite rapt storytelling, though, Hambly's prose shows less care than her research, being replete with tired phrases (""crimson with rage,"" etc.). After 16 years abroad, widower Benjamin January, a very dark Creole, returns from Paris having earned his degree as a physician and, for Carnival, takes up playing piano in the band for the Blue Ribbon Ball at the Salle d'Orleans. This is the ball at which white gentlemen meet their mistresses of various skin shades, having parked their wives at the nearby ThÃ¢Ã„tre d'Orleans. When Benjamin spots a former piano student, the virtuous, newly widowed, pure white Madame Madeleine Trepagier (nÃ¢e Dubonnet), at the wrong bail, he tries to save her from disgrace. She's there to recover her family jewels from the city's worst, most malicious woman of color, Angelique Crozat, mistress of the late Armand Trepagier. But Angelique is strangled, robbed, and stuffed into a closet before Madeleine can talk with her. The murder investigation plunges us into the tangled nature of race relations in New Orleans, made even more complex by the fact that the free colored folk there now have to deal with the recently arrived imperial Americans, who don't recognize (as the French, the founders of the city, did) a colored entitlement to civil rights. What does it mean that the dead Angelique was wearing Madeleine's own handsewn white dress when she died? A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions transforms Hambly's latest into something far more than the modest melodrama it might otherwise have been.