A tale of two cities—and two strangely similar murders.
New Orleans is perilous for a free man of color who could easily be kidnapped off the street and sold into slavery in 1839. That’s just one of the reasons Benjamin January initially turns down British spymaster Sir John Oldmixton’s tempting offer of $100 to find personal papers missing from the body of Henry Brooke, shot dead with a muff pistol, his body thrown into a turning basin. The mention of the muff pistol turns January’s thoughts to Paris, where he lived nine years ago with Ayasha, his pregnant first wife, and worked as a musician whose wide variety of acquaintances included wealthy Daniel Ben-Gideon and his aristocratic wife, Anne. The latest lover of Daniel, who preferred men, was Phillipe de la Marche, a dumb but beautiful aristocrat. For her part, Anne had taken her brother’s Irish fencing master as her lover. When Phillipe was found shot dead by a muff gun on the barricades of a short-lived revolution, his parents used their considerable influence to have Anne arrested for the murder, leaving January and his friends to do everything they could to save her. Back in New Orleans with his pregnant second wife, Rose, January is loath to get involved in Brooke’s murder, but his sister Olympe asks him to help prove the innocence of Jacquette Filoux, who’d opened her home to Brooke. January counts for help on his white friend Hannibal (Drinking Gourd, 2016, etc.), who’d also lived in Paris and is aware of the eerie similarity in the murders. In the heavily stratified society, black people, no matter how pale their skin, are always in danger. But they have many ways of fighting back, and January’s sends an army of unnoticeable spies to search for Jacquette’s brother, who’s run off to escape his gambling debts despite having knowledge that could free his sister.
Hambly’s most complex mystery to date, filled with horrifying historical detail about the lives of subjugated people, ends with a shocking denouement.