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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just Finished Reading...

...the latest Benjamin January novel by Barbara Hambly. This is the twelfth in the series of historical crime novels that began with A Free Man Of Color. I love crime fiction anyway - not for nothing am I a Sister In Crime! And historical crime fiction is good fun. There are so many in which the sleuth is  a real character out of the history books, whether Shakespeare or Jane Austen, even Elizabeth I. I recently read one in which the heroine is Josephine Tey, author of the Inpector Grant series, though the actual crime solver is a weary police detective.

But this series has a fictional hero, Benjamin January, an African-American ex-slave who was educated by his mother's protector when he bought her and her children and freed them. He's a trained surgeon who studied and worked in Paris, but makes his living as a musician, which actually pays better, especially in 1830s New Orleans, where even the coloured community aren't comfortable with a coal-black doctor. However, he has family and friends, including policeman Abishag Shaw, a white man who wouldn't be allowed into Ben's mum's home for being so vulgar, and Irish musician Hannibal Sefton, who is suffering from consumption and plays a Stradivarius, suggesting his family background is a bit wealthier than his current poverty would suggest. (Actually, he's an aristocrat back home, as we discover in another novel). And Ben January is a first-class sleuth, for whose services people are prepared to pay.

This novel takes Ben to Washington, still a Southern city where any free black unlucky enough to be out after dark runs the risk of being kidnapped and sold, and everyone who dies runs the risk of being dug up by "resurrectionists" for sale to surgeons who want anatomy practice. A mathematician friend of his sister's protector's wife has gone missing. One of the characters is Edgar Allan Poe, who still can't make a living out of his writing and is in town looking for a job. I got the sneaking suspicion that Ben is something of an inspiration for Poe's private eye hero(he wrote the first detective fiction, long before Sherlock Holmes.)

I don't know how she does it, but somehow Barbara Hambly manages to keep up the quality even after twelve books. I pounce on these with a cry of delight as they appear and haven't yet been disappointed.


Judy Edmonds said...

I was going to quote TS ELiot's line about Wilkie Collins'The Moonstone being the first detective novel, but upon checking up I allow EAP the honour of being thirty-odd years ahead of that!!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think Edgar Allan Poe wrote short fiction,actually, so The Moonstone may indeed have been the first novel of its kind, just not the first piece of detective fiction.