The Historical Mysteries of Barbara Hambly: A Short Appreciation

Leaning on the corner of Colonel Pritchard’s ostentatious house, he could smell the sharp scent in the hot weight of the night, hear the shift in the feverish tempo of the crickets and the frogs. The dim orange glow of an oil lamp fell through the servants’ door beside him, tipping the weeds beyond the edge of the yard with fire.

Then the air changed, a cool flash of silkiness on his cheek, and he smelled blood.

—Barbara Hambly, Graveyard Dust [Bantam, 1999]

Graveyard Dust was the first of Hambly’s original novels I’d ever read. I can tell you the precise day I stumbled across it, sitting there on a narrow shelf in a tiny specialist mystery bookshop* in late afternoon. It was March 9th, 2007, and reading those lines in the wash of dusty light from the window, I knew I’d found something special.

*Murder Ink, a booksellers which has since “diminished, and gone into the west,” so to speak. Like so many other good things in this dire economy.

New Orleans, 1834. Benjamin January is a free man of colour, a trained surgeon who earns his living as a piano player. When his sister Olympe—Olympia Snakebones, a voodooienne—is arrested on a charge of murder, January’s attempt to clear her name leads him, too, to become a target.

Graveyard Dust’s jacket helpfully informed me it was the third book in a series, but its shelf-companions were all later volumes. But mere out-of-sequence beginnings was hardly daunting in the face of a first chapter that caught me up so vividly: I had a slip of paper marking my page by the time I arrived at the till.

I would find myself ordering books one, two, and four from that very night. (A Free Man Of Color, Fever Season, and Sold Down the River, respectively.) Since then, I’ve read the series entire—with the exception of the most recently published volumes, more than once. Graveyard Dust is no longer my favourite of the January books: depending on my humour, that honour goes to Sold Down the River, with its tense, claustrophobic depiction of plantation life, or Wet Grave, for the sheer crowning awesome of its climax. But Graveyard Dust, like the majority of the (now ten) Benjamin January books, is as taut and engrossing a historical mystery as one could wish.

There are many historical mysteries, even many good ones. The January books stand out for their understated lyricism and the humid, atmospheric darkness—metaphorical, but often literal as well; looking back, it’s striking how much of the action of the series takes place at night—of New Orleans, and for the vivid humanity of their characters.

And because of who January is, and where he stands. Benjamin January is, in the parlance of the times, a ’free man of color’ or gens de couleur libre, a social category distinct from the free whites and the unfree blacks. An educated black man, a surgeon trained in Paris, in his home town he is addressed by the white French Creoles with the familiar tu rather than the polite vous. That’s quite possibly the least of the indignities of that particular place and time, and January—our window to that world—is well-placed to observe not only the ludicrous injustice of legal discrimination, but also the brutality and violence which any slave system requires to maintain itself.

Hambly has done her research. Her historical New Orleans feels real, three-dimensional, filled with sound and scent and colour. And even the worst villain—the most horrifying is the perfectly respectable sadist in Fever Season, although the mad Don who isn’t necessarily a villain in Days of the Dead is also quite chilling—rises far above the level of caricature. Characterisation is one of Hambly’s great strengths, I think: it certainly is here.

While the January books are set for the most part in New Orleans and its environs, they’re not confined there. 2004’s Days of the Dead takes January as far afield as Mexico, to help his friend Hannibal Sefton, an opium-addicted fiddle-player with a mysterious past. The Shirt on His Back, the tenth and most recent, sees January accompany another friend, police lieutenant Abishag Shaw, to the Rocky Mountains in search of Shaw’s brother’s murderer, in a story that nests unfolding strata of vengeance like a revenge-tragedy made of layered origami art.**

**That metaphor may have gotten a bit away from me, but I think I managed to make the right point.

But New Orleans is where the heart of these books lies, in the atmospheric tangle of relationships between American and Creole French, white and black, slave and gens de couleur libre. I sincerely hope that the publication of two new books in the series this year and last, after a hiatus of five years since 2005’s Dead Water, bodes well for its continuation: I, for one, would be very sorry to have seen the last of Benjamin January and his compatriots.

Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree at Trinity College, Dublin. In her copious spare time, she also reviews for


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