Nineteenth-century New Orleans is a blazing hotbed of scorching politics and personal vendettas. And it's into this fire that Benjamin January falls when he is hired to follow Oliver Weems, a bank official who has absconded with $100,000 in gold and securities. But it's more than just a job for January. The missing money is vital to the survival of the school for freed slaves that he and his wife Rose have founded. Following the suspected embezzler--and the money--onto the steamboat Silver Moon, January, Rose, and their friend Hannibal Sefton are sworn to secrecy about the crime until they can find the trunks containing the stolen loot. And then the unexpected happens: Weems is found murdered and suddenly the job of finding the pirated stash grows not only more difficult--but more deadly. There is no shortage of suspects--from the sinister slave-dealer to the bullying steamship pilot to the suspiciously innocent "lady" with connections to every river pirate in the riotous port of Natchez-Under-the-Hill--who all seem to have something to hide.
Hambly's brilliantly crafted eighth historical (after 2003's Days of the Dead) brings the antebellum South so alive you could swear the author traveled back in time to observe her settings firsthand. One day a week the slaves of New Orleans gather at Circus Square (aka Congo Square): "Those who had garden plots sold their surplus produce: tomatoes and corn and peaches whose scent turned the thick hot air around them to molten gold." Series hero Benjamin January, a former slave, and his gracious wife Rose own a fine home in which they've begun a school to educate young girls of color. But when the president of the bank where all the Januarys' money has been deposited comes to them and confides that a bank employee has cleaned out the coffers, the pair have only one choice: follow the thief and recover the money before a substantial payment is due on their mortgage. Enlisting the aid of their cultured and charming white ne'er-do-well friend, Hannibal Sefton, the two pose as Hannibal's slaves/servants and board a steamboat heading up the Mississippi River. On the boat, they find themselves amid slave runners, abolitionists and a host of interesting, unsavory and downright terrifying individuals. So when their quarry is transformed into a corpse, it's no wonder the trio have no idea who might be trusted. This riveting novel of suspense is sure to win Hambly many new fans. Agent, Fran Collin. (Aug. 3) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 25, 2005
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Excerpt from Dead Water by Barbara Hambly
Six days out of seven, the ten thousand or so people in the city of New Orleans whose bodies were the property of other people were kept pretty busy. Having no legal right to choose what they'd rather be doing, they tended to get the dirty jobs, like mucking out stables, cleaning the always-horrifying three-foot gutters that rimmed the downtown streets, cooking everybody's food in sweltering kitchens, and washing everybody's clothing, and getting damn little thanks for any of it--they were better off doing white people's chores than living in heathen villages in Africa like their ancestors (said the white people).
Sunday afternoons, the slaves got together in what was officially called Circus Square--unofficially, Congo Square--next to the turning basin where the canal-boats maneuvered, and close by the old St. Louis Cemetery. Those who had garden plots sold their surplus produce: tomatoes and corn, this time of year, and peaches whose scent turned the thick hot air around them to molten gold. Old women peddled gumbo for a penny or two a bowl, or bread, or pralines: brown, pink, or white. Old men sat under the plane-trees around the square's edge and told stories to the children, about Compair Lapin the rabbit and ugly stupid Bouki the Hyena, and High John the Conqueror, who always got the better of the whites.
Always, someone played the drums. Ancient rhythms flowed and leaped through the American dust, rhythms passed down from mothers or fathers or grandparents who'd been taken from African shores--even the modern tunes were quirked into African syncopation.
Always there was dancing, the men turning the women under their arms, leaping and slapping their feet, wriggling in doubled and quadrupled rhythms, styling to show off what they could do. Ankle-bells jangled, hands clapped. Voices shouted encouragement, and when the sun glanced low over the slate roofs of the pastel town and flashed like a burning sword blade on the river, then Mamzelle Marie would come--Marie Laveau, the Queen of all the voodoos--and dance with her snake, and sing the songs of her power and her triumph.
At the gates of the paling fence that circled Congo Square, Benjamin January stood watching the voodoo queen dance in the twilight.
I walk on pins,
I walk on needles,
I walk on gilded splinters;
I want to see what they can do. . . .