Born into slavery on the Bellefleur Plantation, Benjamin January, a plum-dark Creole, was freed when St.-Denis Janvier bought his mother to make her his mistress and let her two children tag along. Now, 35 years later, January's former owner, the brutal Simon Fourchet, wants him to spy on the slaves at his other plantation, Mon Triomphe, to discover who’s sabotaging the sugar-cane harvest, wrecking the mill, leaving ominous hoodoo messages on the walls, and fomenting a rebellion that could turn as deadly as Nat Turner’s. Ben, a Paris-trained surgeon and New Orleans musician, agrees only because his refusal would expose all the slaves, not just the guilty ones, to whippings and worse. He arrives in Ascension Parish in the guise of a consumptive white man's valet and finds the butler dead of poisoned cognac; a lawsuit begun between Fourchet and the neighboring Daubrays; mysterious comings and goings in the bayous; second-wife problems; brother trouble; house servants disdaining field hands; and slave beatings even more severe than the one he suffered at the hand of Fourchet when he was a child of seven. But January's biggest worry when Fourchet dies and his “master” goes missing is that he will be enslaved again, this time forever.
Searing degradation cloaks a classic whodunit. As in Ben’s earlier adventures (Graveyard Dust, 1999, etc.), the white/black turmoil of the mid-19th century is depicted in fierce and lush clarity.