Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read a historical novel set in pre-Civil War New Orleans and especially not one set in the early 1830’s. Benjamin January is a free black man returning to New Orleans after sixteen years in Paris. The laws of New Orleans prevent him practising medicine, hence he earns his living as a musician and music teacher. Hambly paints a detailed and absorbing picture of Creole society at a point of transition. While the atmosphere and attitude of much of the city is still French, American influence is growing. January knows that as a free man of colour, his word will still (mostly) be taken seriously by Creoles in New Orleans. Outside the city though things are different. Along the bayous plantations are springing up run by newcomers from Kentucky and Georgia – people for whom the concept of a free black man is a contradiction in terms.
A murder at a Mardi Gras ball drops January unwillingly into a world of glittering decadence, demi monde and deceit. The last person known to have seen the murdered Angelique Crozat alive he must find her real killer before the New Orleans Creole elite pin the murder on him. Hambly packs an immense amount of detail into the book – I personally enjoyed it but I could see less patient people growing weary with the scene-setting and skimming forward to get to the action. My personal advice would be to stick with it – the story takes a while to get going but when it does you will find it very hard indeed to put down.