Sold Down the River
Big, black, and smart, Ben January signs on as private detective for the man who once owned him and his mother. He’s been to Paris and educated as a doctor and musician, but he now risks his freedom to pose as a cane-hand, to keep slave-holder Simon Fourchet from being murdered.
January acts as the purported servant of his dissolute friend Hannibal Sefton. His sidekick Lt. Shaw of the New Orleans City Guard keeps tabs on January via different colored kerchiefs tied on an oak, a signal that boatmen on the Mississippi report to Shaw daily. Butler Gilles succumbed when he drank poisoned brandy intended for Fourchet. Mill boss Reuben was crushed by falling machinery when someone spooked the mules. The fierce oppression of the master and overseer during roulaison, the sugar harvest, causes every slave to harbor murderous thoughts. His harsh demands, brutal punishment, and lecherous exploitation of sweethearts and daughters, leads to the butchery of overseer Thierry. Everyone’s got a motive.
Author Barbara Hambly recreates New Orleans with authentic period detail that spices a gripping narrative. Her meticulous research provides a rich atmosphere of music, food and customs. Her characters breathe with strengths and foibles. The writing has a dense texture that immerses the reader in 1834 Louisiana.
Not only is this book a pleasure to read, but I’ll look for the whole Benjamin January series. Her poetic turn of phrase lulls the reader, while the intricate plotting challenges one’s attention and participation to keep tabs on the suspects. Her previous suspense classic, Graveyard Dust, was a bestseller. Sold Down the River is a keeper.