Free man of color Benjamin January (Days of the Dead, 2003, etc.) encounters slave traders and abolitionists while trying to save the Bank of Louisiana from going under in 1836.
As dishonest manager Oliver Weems packs up the New Orleans bank’s assets and boards the steamboat Silver Moon, Ben, acting as valet to his white friend, opium-addicted Hannibal Sefton, boards right behind, his wife Rose below deck with the other Negro womenfolk and the slaves belonging to warring traders Ned Gleet and Jubal Cain. Casting off, the Silver Moon rams into sandbars as card sharks prowl the game room, pirates lie in wait, suspiciously docile slaves stop singing one midnight, a certifiable hussy propositions several of the men, and someone tosses Weems overboard. Passenger Jefferson Davis unofficially takes command, but Ben must (1) figure out who killed Weems, (2) discover who engineered a duel between ship Sefton and Captain Molloy that’s left Ben in danger of being sold up the river, and (3) go mano à mano with spurious abolitionist Levi Christmas. Just before the Silver Moon is scuttled, a few hard truths emerge: the Underground Railroad sometimes runs on water, and bank robbers sometimes leave their booty behind to reclaim another day when it’s safer.
Hambly knows her stuff (voodoo amulets, river soundings, Latin tags, African songs, laudanum derivatives, pre–Civil War tracts) and is one of a handful of historical writers who’s mastered the conventions of the classic mystery puzzle.