Friends of Benjamin January have ample reason to rejoice. Barbara Hambly has delivered us a new mystery adventure starring the free black surgeon/musician/sleuth of 1830s New Orleans, and it’s another awe-inspiring page-turner. Ben and his friends and family are here, with plenty of intrigue and danger to spare for all concerned, as they are induced to travel first to Cuba, and then to Haiti. This time, the stakes are even higher, since Ben and his wife Rose now have baby John relying upon their survival.
It all starts when Rose’s white half-brother, Jeoffrey Vitrac –- or, as he has Americanized it, Jefferson Vitrack -– shows up in New Orleans with a small gold and red enamel angel charm that Rose recognizes at once as a family talisman. Surrounding this artifact is a tangle of legend regarding a cache of hidden treasure, lost to the family when the slaves of the island of Saint-Domingue rebelled and established the nation of Haiti in 1791. Since no white man can safely set foot on that island now, Vitrack seeks his black brother-in-law’s help in tracking down and retrieving the riches, in exchange for a portion of the find. Despite the January family’s pressing need for a cash infusion in this desperately impoverished year of 1838, Benjamin declines. However, when Vitrack turns up dead a few days later, and a stranger makes an attempt on Rose’s life in a crowded street, it becomes clear that some investigation is called for.
Just as clearly, Rose and Ben must get out of town, while trying to ensure the safety of the surviving descendants of Absalon de Gericault, Rose’s white great-grandfather. Baby John is smuggled into the household of Ben’s sister Olympe, and Ben and Rose board a boat for Grand Isle, Louisiana, to warn the other Vitrac half-brother: Aramis, owner of Chouteau Plantation. By the time they arrive, however, Aramis has already been wounded in what he has taken to be a hunting accident, but which his sister and brother-in-law recognize as another murder attempt. Someone is highly motivated to wipe out what remains of the family line. It seems there’s no choice now but to voyage on to Cuba, where the first clues to the truth about the de Gericault treasure are said to lie. Benjamin’s dear friend, the white fiddler Hannibal Sefton, joins them for the journey.
What follows is a rip-roaring adventure through the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and the Cuban countryside, followed by a headlong pursuit into the troubled heart of Haiti. Suffice to say that there is more to the hidden cache of the de Gericaults than anyone suspected. Many dark secrets will be revealed, help comes from unexpected quarters, and Ben faces some desperate choices in his determination to ensure that Baby John does not grow up as an orphan.
This 13th installment in the Benjamin January saga will be enormously satisfying for longtime devotees of the series, but new readers will also be captivated by the three-dimensional characters and the well-researched historical setting, as well as the lively wit and warm humanity that Hambly always delivers. Start here, and you will definitely want to go back and discover the rest of the story of Ben, Hannibal, Rose, and their antebellum New Orleans world.
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley for review. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.