Cold Bayou: A Historical Mystery Set in New Orleans by Barbara Hambly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Disclaimer: Arc via Severn Publishers and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
In part, a book’s popularity determines whether or not it will be adapted to film or television. I get this. But sometimes, I look at all the shows that make into production and wonder why. Then I wonder why, no one has made a mystery series out of the Benjamin January novels. The first one was published in 1997. The series has staying power. So seriously, Hollywood, wake up!
This installment finds Ben, Rose, his mother and sister traveling to a plantation outside of New Orleans to attend the wedding of a rich Veryl St-Chinian to a far less rich and less pure Miss Ellie Trask. Needless to say, the rich man’s family is rather put out about this low case Irish wench weaseling her way into the old rich boy’s heart.
It’s a plot that has been use in one way or another since well, whenever. But Ben isn’t in Martin Chuzzlewit. Before the dead body is discovered, the January family’s freedom is at risk, so Ben finds himself fighting to prove his innocence of murder as well as to keep his family free.
Hambly’s series works because she captures a New Orleans after the purchase but before the Civil War, when American were slowly, perhaps, changing the way the society of New Orleans as well as the laws work. Ben and his family view this though the gaze of freed slaves (his mother, he, and his sister were freed. His second sister is mistress to one of Viellard family, who are related to the St-Chinian family). Everything about Ben’s life is affected by his skin color and status, he is trained as a doctor but cannot work as one, so instead is a musician. One sister is a voodoo priestess who does not speak to their mother, who secured the family’s freedom by drawing the interest of a rich white man. The strain between mother and oldest daughter is tied to sex and behavior among whites. Ben’s wife, Rose, is a mixed race woman who runs a school for mixed race girls. His sister’s relationship with her protector is conducted with the knowledge that they cannot marry and that their daughter will always be viewed as secondary, if that.
Hambly tackles the issue of shade of skin color as well – not only within the January family- but also with those that they know. Power and status are important to not only the whites who inhabit the story but to the blacks and at great cost, for freed slaves have more to lose than respect.
The mystery and its outcome are well done. Hambly, as usual, makes her female characters shine even though the series is centered on a male title character.
It’s just a shame that a series that combines race issues, history, and a homage to Christie doesn’t get enough respect to be made into a film.
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